It’s Always the Drugs

The issue of medications and drugs in racing is not going away, and the solutions to this contentious issue are along a continuum from the existing system is fine to we need federal legislation.

Last November I did an article about H.R. 3084, the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015. You can read it here. In that piece I pointed out that not only was the Act seriously flawed, but it really may not be about the administration of drug testing at all but about the great boogeyman of horseracing, Lasix. I urge you to take a look at it. The piece is factual and clearly points out why, in the end, the balance sheet tips away from the horseplayer.

Recently two letters to the editor of the Thoroughbred Daily News (TDN) reiterated support for H.R. 3084. Matt Iuliano, executive vice president and executive director of the Jockey Club (a supporter of the bill) took W. Duncan Patterson of the Delaware Racing Commission and the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) to task for opposing the legislation. (See Iuliano’s letter here). As is common with these things, Iuliano’s first salvo was to accuse Patterson of being part of a campaign of misinformation against the bill.

According to Iuliano, those against the federal legislation say,

It is a campaign notable for the extent to which it mischaracterizes the provisions of H.R. 3084 and for the vehemence of the rhetoric it employs in condemning both the mischaracterized legislation and those who support it.

And it is all premised on the bedrock assumption that everything is totally fine in the realm of Thoroughbred medication regulation.

And then he provides a quote from Patterson that has nothing to do with everything being alright, but instead worries about whether the U.S. ADA medications list would have to be incorporated into the ARCI list.

Mr. Patterson states: “The medications that are approved by USADA are some medications which we do not allow in racing at any threshold level. By the same token, there are other medications we allow that they don’t allow. So our whole medication schedule would have to be revamped under this.”

The major question should be, would the medication schedule have to be revamped and the answer is maybe. Patterson’s statement may sound hyperbolic, but his point is that the new Thoroughbred Horseracing Anti-Doping Agency (THADA) would have the authority to set standards, and none of us knows exactly how the schedule would be revamped, although I think we can all agree that drugs specifically for human and not equine consumption are not in danger of being on the list.

Unfortunately Iuliano takes the first part of Patterson’s statement and turns that into the misinformation campaign. It is, in the glossary of magician terms, misdirection. It is as if Iuliano is saying, watch me discredit someone by accusing them of taking an absurd position while I ignore the basic issue.

Patterson also mentions the cost of testing.

“Currently USADA does 8,400 tests a year. Nationwide, we do 300,000 tests. Travis Tygart, the head of USADA, is obviously very knowledgeable, but when asked what plan he had to ramp up his testing by almost 40 times, he had no plan. When asked about the costs of their tests we were told about $1,000 a test. Currently, we spend, nationally, $30 million on testing. Simple math will tell you we will go from $30 million to $300 million. Who in the hell is going to pay for that?”

Iuliano then blasts Patterson for more misinformation, noting that no U.S. racing lab tests 300,000 samples. Of course, that is not what Patterson said, and all you have to do is read the sentence. Iuliano goes on to say it is all the labs taken together that test 300,000 samples, which is what Patterson said, unless he believes the word “we” in Patterson’s statement means something other than the the agglomeration of racing jurisdictions. Again, Patterson asks the right questions if you’re paying attention. How does THADA ramp up to 300,000 tests when U.S. ADA (the ostensible model) doesn’t have experience doing more than 8,400? How much more is it going to cost than what we are currently laying out? It simply means, we have a whole new ball game with a ton of details to figure out.

As they say on the informercials, wait, there’s more. THADA would be implementing a new out-of-competition testing program. No doubt that would add to the testing numbers (and cost), once we know exactly what that means. Are we talking about random testing of horses not entered for a race? The reason the U.S. ADA does that is to try to stop the use of anabolics and blood doping, and while some use of anabolics does go on (horses suffering from failure to thrive are often given stanozolol) it is most often therapeutic. If a horse has any level of an anabolic steroid in its system post race, it is a positive, so trainers might have to wait 45-90 days if they treated a horse with a drug like stanozolol.

Iuliano then gives us an important fact as stated in the bill. THADA could contract with the existing laboratories (assuming they got certified) to do the testing. What Iuliano doesn’t say is that the bill doesn’t give THADA disciplinary authority – that still stays with the state.So there is a distinct possibility we’ll have the same system we have, except one more oversight agency.  But, the good news is that there will be no problem paying for all of THADA’s work in setting up the system we already have, with the exception they get to make the standards. THADA just charges the states. Plus, Iuliano cites a report from McKinsey & Company that the incremental cost for having the THADA would only be $19.95 – no that’s my April Fools Joke. It would be $60 per start. I don’t have the math handy, but that has to be a pretty big number. What Iuliano doesn’t mention is who would be paying for the new charge. Anyone what to hazard a guess? Your clue is that it begins with horse and ends with players. If you read the bill, it says in plain english, Nothing in this Act requires the United States Government to provide funding for or to guarantee debts of the authority. The funds necessary for the establishment and administration of the Thoroughbred horsearacing anti-doping program shall be paid entirely by the Thoroughbred horse racing industry…

Ultimately, that means the bettors, whether it is through the take or the money spent on live attendance.

Finally, Iuliano takes Patterson to task for contradicting a statement ARCI made in 2011, which stated Lasix is the thing that doesn’t pass the public credibility test, by suggesting Lasix is a necessary drug for racehorses. Yes, the leadership in 2011 said that, although it was not the position of all the racing commissioners, but it is the current ARCI policy that we need to focus on.

He asks,Where in the bill is there an immediate prohibition of race-day Lasix?

The answer is in fact nowhere, but unless Iuliano wants to suggest we are all blind and feeble-minded, the groups in favor of H.R. 3084 are the same groups that oppose race day Lasix, and a strategy where you only have to convince one group – THADA – to ban the medication might just work out better than the current need to convince 39 jurisdictions. ARCI won’t take on the banning of raceday Lasix, so it is a pretty foxy strategy to put all the decision making authority in a place where they may get a sympathetic ear, especially when you looks

Iuliano closes by saying that while ARCI supports the National Uniform Medication Program, local influences and the wide differences in rule making processes among the states reaffirm the need for change. What Iuliano doesn’t say is that some of the “local influences” are highly respected equine pharmacologists like Dr. Steven Barker in Louisiana, who believe some of the standards were not set using valid scientific testing methods. The problem isn’t the local influences  but the potential failures of the existing standard setters, and that is a problem that can be solved without adding another layer of bureaucracy if they simply choose to do their job correctly.

The second letter was from Russell S. Cohen, a veterinarian who also manages Tri-Bone Stable. You can read it here.

Cohen starts out by agreeing with Iuliano that the assumption that everything is totally fine within the realm of thoroughbred medication regulation is totally false. Other than the fact Iuliano implied that Patterson was saying that when there was no indication he was, most of us would agree thoroughbred medication regulation is not fine, although perhaps for different reasons.

Interestingly, while Cohen seems to lament the use of Lasix on his horses, he is compelled to use it because he doesn’t want to be at a competitive disadvantage. Pretty much the same argument I used in college to explain why I needed to be stoned to enjoy the Laser Floyd show at the planetarium.

He also tells a story about one of his horses.

One of our horses recently had a medical issue before a race that required a steroid anti-inflammatory that, due to testing, could not be administered. I consulted with two other vets in the state that has medication rules I am not clear on. The only option that was legal was 10cc of Bute (2000mg) or 10cc Banamine(500mg). I chose Banamine and called both vets but they were at another track. A third vet was called, and walked into the barn with a 35cc syringe filled with 15 cc (750mg) of Banamine. I told this vet who I was, who the horse is, the race he was in and the post time. I questioned him a second time, and then asked the vet again, can you administer 750 mg? I was told that there would be no problem.

Still, I asked the vet to spill in the shed row 6cc, and administer the rest. I revisited this with the other two vets, racing officials and those responsible for the drug testing. I was told by the head of drug testing program that the horse, if administered 750 mg. of Banamine, “would be in serious jeopardy of testing positive,” which contradicted what the vet had told me.

Notice that Cohen used the word “required” to justify using a steroidal anti-inflammatory. Not that it was a treatment option, but that it was required. He also doesn’t mention (but perhaps expects the reader to know) that Banamine and Bute are non-steroidal anti-inflammatories.

He uses the word “legal” to describe application of either of the common NSAIDS. The fact is that both drugs are on the list of approved medications, and the dosage is a recommended dosage (along with a  recommended 32 hour pre-race withdrawal time) to avoid a post-race testing positive and not the legal limit of either medication.

He doesn’t actually mention when the incident with the other vet occurred other than recently, but if he had read my story on Bill Brashears and Banamine (read it here) which was written a year ago he wouldn’t have had a problem with a vet who, if the story is accurate, didn’t actually know what he was doing. Of course, that also doesn’t speak well of Cohen, who as a vet who has been in racing for “over 30 years” shouldn’t have been getting bamboozled by one of his colleagues.

Cohen suggests a three strike rule, like baseball, and at some level this might not be a bad idea. But there actually needs to be an intent to cheat, meaning a trainer knowingly tried to gain an advantage, not like in the case of Brashears where he had a picogram positive even though he was trying to comply with the rule. Plus, you can’t give the racing commissions unfettered authority to wait to tell a trainer about a violation and then treat three violations for the same medication as separate incidents. Otherwise, it would be too easy for the racing commission to just target a trainer for extinction.

Cohen provides two more recommendations, neither of which is an enormous game changer, but would be worth discussing, especially if vets like the one that was trying to get Cohen in hot water are the rule rather than the exception.

Regardless of your position on Lasix, there is a way to resolve this issue without resorting to federal legislation, which from at least one perspective appears to be an attempt by the Coalition for Horseracing Integrity to end run the individual state racing commissions that haven’t so far proven interested in given the anti-Lasix crowd its way.

Let’s focus on two things. Developing a forum where all the stakeholders representing all the various positions agree to work for future regulation of Lasix, and spending a lot more time and effort ensuring the standards in the National Uniform Medication Program  are set using good, scientific testing studies. But let’s not spend any more time on a piece of poorly crafted and thoroughly unnecessary legislation.