Rebels and Reformers - By Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the October 12, 2013, 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

The U.S. horse racing industry is yet again waving a big flag emblazoned with: “We cannot regulate ourselves.”

On the verge of significant progress toward uniform medication rules and a stronger penalty system, the rug keeps getting pulled out from underneath. The recent blind side came from the U.S. Trotting Association, which announced an immediate exit from the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium over proposed withdrawal times for clenbuterol and corticosteroids.

“In effect, the proposals took the use of those therapeutics away from Standardbred horsemen while not at all impacting the ability of Thoroughbred horsemen to employ the medications,” stated USTA president Phil Langley in a Sept. 27 letter to the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

What made the announcement so surprising is the USTA has made a significant contribution of time and money toward the RMTC, having been a member for 10 years and contributed more than $1 million. During the past decade the USTA has been involved in all the scientific reviews and debates that have shaped the proposed national model rules. According to RCI president Ed Martin, the RMTC includes regulatory advisers, as well, who are actively involved in the monitoring and enforcement of rules for both Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing. Representatives of the American Association of Equine Practitioners have been engaged in the process, too.

“The USTA objected to the RMTC recommendations for the use of clenbuterol and corticosteroids,” said Alex Waldrop, RMTC chairman and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, “but note that there are alternatives to treat a Standardbred horse post-race that will better accommodate the Standardbred business model without creating a back door to steroidal-type effects.”

Clenbuterol is used primarily to open up constricted air passages in the lungs, but it also is considered an anabolic steroid substitute.

Waldrop said the USTA has also been advocating a “liberalization” of the policies on corticosteroid use.

“The uniform rules recommended by the RMTC and adopted by the RCI are the most effective way to ensure the safety of all racehorses and the integrity of the sport, regardless of breed,” Waldrop said.

What is surprising is how matter-of-fact the reliance on regular corticosteroid and clenbuterol treatments seems to be for the Standardbred industry. Clenbuterol is apparently administered therapeutically and with regularity a day or two after a race to horses that race every week or two.

Langley said the therapeutic medication needs of Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds should be treated separately because of differences between the breeds themselves and how they are raced.

“Our horses race on a weekly basis, often for many years,” Langley explained in the USTA’s resignation letter to the RCI. “Catastrophic breakdowns in our sport are exceedingly rare. Sadly, this is not the case in the Thoroughbred industry. The USTA is very much in favor of uniform rules, but by breed.”

He added that the USTA also favors out-of-competition testing, elimination of blood doping and use of erythropoietin (EPO), ways to identify improper use of shock-wave therapy, and the development of tests for in-use but as yet unidentified drugs.

Unfortunately, the uniform application of these rules won’t include the Standardbred industry because it’s now out of the RMTC.

The Thoroughbred industry does seem resolute in adopting the uniform national model rules on medication and drug-testing. More than 50 racetracks and industry organizations have co-signed a letter urging state regulators to act immediately in adopting the rules (see The Wire, page 14).

This will get complicated in states such as Delaware and Pennsylvania, which have separate racing commissions for Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing.

What is frustrating is that despite all the effort toward uniformity, the split between the Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds could be seen one way by congressional leaders itching to create federal oversight for the horse racing industry: that the industry cannot effectively police itself.

Perhaps the strong call-to-action among Thoroughbred racetracks and organizations will push state regulators to move forward with across-the-board medication rules and penalties. If not—and the end result is a continuation of fractured rules—then maybe Congress is right.

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