First Do No Harm - by Eric Mitchell

A veterinarian shall respect the law and also recognize a responsibility to seek changes to laws and regulations which are contrary to the best interests of the patient and public health. —From the American Veterinary Medical Association Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics

The Maryland Racing Commission’s suspension of three trainers for positive stanozolol tests has brought several issues to light.

The synthetic steroid, formerly branded as Winstrol, was found in five horses that raced at Laurel Park. Four of the horses won their races while the fifth finished second.

The suspended trainers are Scott Lake, A. Ferris Allen, and Hector Garcia. The Maryland Jockey Club took the additional step Feb. 5 of banning not only Garcia from its racetracks but also Garcia’s former boss Juan C. Vazquez. The horses in Garcia’s barn that tested positive for stanozolol—Today’s Man and Winning Player—had been transferred to him from Vazquez’ barn because Vazquez had to serve a 90-day suspension.

These horses were also under the veterinary care of Vazquez’ wife, Kaelynn Moury, according to MJC.

The role veterinarians play in drug positives is one important issue raised by the Maryland case.

While trainers can be suspended and fined, what sanctions does the veterinarian prescribing and administering the drugs face? Under our current penalty system, none, because racetrack veterinarians are outside the jurisdiction of state racing commissions.

The Association of Racing Commissioners International’s model rules that outline penalties for trainers and owners under the new Multiple Medications Violations program note: Any veterinarian found to be involved in the administration of any drug carrying a category “A” penalty shall be referred to the State Licensing Board of Veterinary Medicine for consideration of further disciplinary action and/or license revocation. This is in addition to any penalties issued by the stewards or the commission.

Category A penalties are the most severe and apply to use of any opiates, stimulants, psychoactive drugs, and any performance-enhancing drug that stimulates the central nervous system and has no accepted medical use.

This guideline, however, does not apply to an anabolic steroid positive. Why? Because anabolic steroids are a Class 4 drug and recognized as having an accepted therapeutic use. Steroids, such as stanozolol, are seen as beneficial for horses that are out of training and in rehabilitation.

But in the Maryland case the horses weren’t being treated while out of training. They were being given a compounded steroid with one goal in mind: to improve the performance of the horses on the racetrack, and the drugs were more than likely prescribed by Moury. That doesn’t sound like respect for the law and in the best interest of the equine patient.

There is no good mechanism for dealing with veterinarians who flaunt the rules as much as trainers. Regulators note that trainers get sanctioned for positive test results only because of the absolute insurer rule. The substance was in the horse; the trainer is responsible. Period. No one has to prove the trainer gave a banned substance to the horse. Consequently, it is difficult to put the finger on veterinarians who are pharmaceutical pioneers.

But it doesn’t mean the industry shouldn’t try. Here’s a first step to consider: A drug positive that results in a suspension and/or fine should automatically trigger a complaint to the appropriate Attorney General’s office that contacts the state veterinary licensing board.

As of now no complaint has been filed with the Indiana Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners on Dr. Ross Russell, an Indiana veterinarian who has been excluded from all properties under the jurisdiction of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission for being willing to “knowingly dispense unauthorized drugs and loaded syringes for illicit race-day administration,” according to an IHRC report. The commission has recommended a 20-year ban and a fine of $20,000, but Russell has requested an administrative hearing. A judge has been appointed, and a hearing regarding the merits of the case is not expected to be conducted until the fall. Russell has denied the allegations and has said they rely heavily on information from an employee he fired.

Even with a hearing pending, a case in which a state agency has taken action against a licensed professional seems like it should at least be documented by the licensing board. Doesn’t it offer insight if a doctor is getting multiple complaints over several years, even if none of them result in a malpractice suit? A pattern might warrant closer scrutiny.

The racing industry cannot move fast enough toward getting drugs out of the sport, and that means finding a way to hold everyone with syringe in hand accountable. 


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