Medications on the racetrack

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Medication is the root of all evil at the racetrack, and veterinarians are the ones sticking needles into racehorses, right? This isn't a pretty picture, but it's a common paradigm in which the general public and even some of our own small animal colleagues paint a broad-brush portrait of veterinarians who've dedicated their careers to serving the needs of racehorses; guilt by implication and association[1].

This is not to say that veterinarians do not have ownership in the problems of horse racing. We certainly do. What industry or profession does not have its share of "bad apples?" We only have to look at the US banking industry or political offices to find examples of individuals who made bad choices. Finger-pointing has become a national pastime, and blogs provide a public forum to define the truth without the cumbersome burden of peer review.

The AAEP recently released a white paper titled "Putting the Horse First: Veterinary Recommendations for the Safety and Welfare of the Thoroughbred Racehorse. 'It provoked more than a few cynical responses: An overworked subject. Naive, but well-intentioned. Kumbaya around the campfire.' 'Why don't the vets make recommendations about things they know rather than blame jockeys and trainers?' asked one individual. In fact, those who take the time to read the white paper will find that it isn't about blaming; it's about reducing injury and establishing a culture of integrity.

Racetrack veterinarians practice medicine in the larger context of society's perception of horses as companion animals, the business model of horse racing, and the veterinarian ("trainer") owner relationship. We endorse the current Racing Medication & Testing Consortium ( recommendations for uniform medication guidelines that limit race-day medication to furosemide. We call for increased racetrack security and significant uniform penalties for violators of medication rules, including veterinarians. We all need to accept personal responsibility for equine welfare.

The AAEP Racing Committee is currently drafting specific "best-practice" guidelines for racetrack practitioners and regulatory veterinarians that will be used to "put the horse first" in the backstretch. The practitioner best-practice document will include recommendations on handlingand administering medication, a change in emphasis from billing for medication (administered or dispensed) to billing for professional services, and transparency in the veterinarian"trainer"owner relationship.

In the past year, the winds of change have been sweeping out the status quo in horse racing. Diverse stakeholders are joining forces to implement changes that will make horse racing safer and help restore integrity to the sport. This is no easy task, and meaningful results will not happen overnight. Principal obstacles to change include financial pressures made more acute by the economic downturn, the existence of 38 individual horse-racing jurisdictions with unique challenges and opinions on how to best regulate the industry, and a natural reluctance by some to embrace change.

There seems to be a tendency to compartmentalize individual stakeholders in the horse-racing industry. For example, the perception is that veterinarians should stay focused on medication issues, which are, after all, our area of expertise. We should stick to what we know. However, the AAEP white paper does exactly that. The Thoroughbred industry is facing enormous challenges that are broad in scope and cannot be solved with simplistic or compartmentalized recommendations. Simplistic approaches provide catchy sound bites for the media but divert attention from real solutions.

The AAEP white paper is partly a response to crisis management by the Thoroughbred industry. A recent survey of horse-racing and general sports fans identified two fundamental factors now considered to be the root cause of horse racing's downturn: (1) high-profile injuries of horses and riders and (2) a perception that medication has tilted the playing field in favor of cheaters. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has identified five areas of reform to address these concerns: medication and testing, injury reporting and prevention, safety research, improvement of safety in the horse-racing environment, and care of retired racehorses. Interestingly, all of these reforms are veterinary medical issues. So is it appropriate for veterinarians to comment on the myriad problems of the Thoroughbred racing industry? Absolutely. If the objectives are to improve the safety and integrity of horse racing, recommendations from a veterinary perspective are relevant, appropriate, and intended to be supportive. While numerous organizations are focused on "fixing" the industry, the AAEP Racing Committee feels that it is critical for someone to speak for horses in the process. The white paper's unique veterinary viewpoint offers recommendations designed to encourage decision makers in the industry to put horses first. Are the recommendations broad in scope? Certainly; as are the problems that confront us. Controversial? Absolutely; the diversity of stakeholders mandates that no single perspective will please everyone. Ambitious and expensive? You bet; but maintaining the status quo will be far more costly for the industry.

A white paper on such a broad topic is, by its nature, superficial to some degree, and the "devil" is always in the details. The Committee's claiming recommendations have been particularly controversial. We feel strongly that a horse suffering from a catastrophic injury or having a positive test result following a race should remain the property of the owner who entered the horse rather than be handed over to the new owner at the finish. We feel that this change will encourage more responsible care of claiming horses. But what if a horse just clips its heels in the race? Or what if a rider pulls up the horse to prevent the claim? We are working with our industry partners, such as the National Horsemen's Benevolence & Protective Association, to address these concerns. Nonetheless, our eyes are on the prize. Our goal is to protect horses in a racing environment.

Veterinarians will continue to work with industry stakeholders to put horses first. The AAEP white paper is not perfect, but the Committee's vision is clear: if we do what is best for horses in all aspects of the industry, everybody wins. The alternatives are simply unacceptable.


Further reading

Dr. Palmer is chair of the AAEP Racing Committee, which created the white paper titled "Putting the Horse First: Veterinary Recommendations for the Safety and Welfare of the Thoroughbred Racehorse. To read the white paper, search for "racehorse white paper" at [1] or go to [2].