Just Do It - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the July 14, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Before the end of 2012, Thoroughbred racing jurisdictions across the U.S. could dramatically change the regulatory landscape and send a strong message that medication abuse won’t be tolerated.

No venomous public hearings. No action stymied by widespread protests and threats. The change could be made even quicker than Thoroughbred racing’s ban of anabolic steroids, which took less than a year.

What is this magic elixir that could help restore integrity to the sport? It is The Jockey Club’s proposed “Reformed Racing Medication Rules.” These rules include a point system for penalty violations. Every violation includes a redistribution of purse money and a disqualification. Points accumulate as violations occur and trigger more severe penalties. Anyone who amasses 200 points in a three-year period is banned for a minimum of three years and, if aggravating circumstances exist, could be banned for life.

By consensus, a list of about 40 allowable therapeutic medications was cut to 26 and specific withdrawal times and testing thresholds identified for each.

And brace yourself: Practicing veterinarians, regulatory veterinarians, owners, and trainers’ representatives have all endorsed the thresholds and penalties.

So what’s holding up the adoption? Well, there is a fly in the elixir and its name is furosemide. The original draft of the medication rules recognized the anti-bleeding medication, also known as Salix or Lasix, as a permitted medication. This was how most people involved in drafting the proposed rules expected furosemide to be treated. In the final version released March 30, however, The Jockey Club included furosemide among the prohibited substances and encouraged the phaseout of its use on race day.

“While drafting the rules, we were having to make a lot of exceptions for furosemide, such as for total carbon dioxide levels and the presence of vets in a stall on race day,” said Matt Iuliano, executive vice president and executive director of The Jockey Club. “We took the road that has been consistent with the position of The Jockey Club, that all horses should be running free of medication on race day. We think eliminating Salix is best for the breed.”

We agree that racing’s future should be medication-free, for the success of the sport and health of the breed, but this single issue should not be allowed to derail what could otherwise be real progress toward stricter penalties and enforcement. Boards for both the Association of Racing Commissioners International and the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium will be reviewing and hopefully endorsing these rules within the next 30 days. Soon after, we hope every racing commission quickly begins its own adoption of a better, tougher penalty system of which 98% could be consistent across the U.S. It’s within our grasp to have what we all want—clear medication rules and thresholds, tougher penalties, and consistency coast-to-coast.

The New York Times Responds

The New York Times’ analysis of racing breakdowns and signs of injury that appeared in its March 25 edition search for categories within the data that included “broke down,” “vanned off,” and “lame.” The article did not identify all the search terms used but apparently the terms did not include any horses identified as “eased” or “walked off.” Joe Drape, one of the reporters on the story, did confirm the paper looked for terms indicating “signs of injury.” Now, a sign of injury should not be confused with critically injured.

“We never said critically injured,” said Drape in an e-mail. “If Eli Manning gets carted off in the first half, but returns in the second, he still showed signs of injury.”

One more point of clarification: The Quarter Horse statistics only made up a relatively small percentage of the injury statistics. And yet the article’s indictment of horse racing focused on unscrupulous Quarter Horse trainer Andres Gonzalez and his owner/cousin Ramon Gonzalez Jr., and then on seven critically injured jockeys, six of whom were injured in Quarter Horse races. 

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