Frequently Asked Questions
Dr. Dionne Benson, executive director and COO of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, answers common questions about medication use and testing in racehorses in North America, as well as projects of the RMTC:
Question: How would you compare horse racing’s drug testing policy to the policy of testing human athletes?
Dr. Benson: In many respects, testing in horse racing is superior to that in human athletics. Generally, equine testing laboratories analyze samples for a far wider variety of drugs and many more samples are tested than in human athletics. At least every winner of every race in the U.S. has a post-race sample collected (either blood, urine or in many cases both)and in most states, the stewards have the power to send additional horses to the test barn following the race. This means that approximately 200,000 horses are sampled throughout the country every year- an average of 1.74 per race. In New York, four horses out of every race are tested. At any given time, laboratories may be screening for hundreds of chemical compounds including local anesthetics, tranquilizers and anesthetic agents, narcotics, stimulants, beta agonists, non-narcotic analgesics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, anabolic steroids and other classes of potentially performance effecting drugs. One difference is that human athletes are tested throughout the year both in competition and out of competition. Horse racing in the U.S. is primarily focused on in-competition testing. On an annual basis, the industry spends approximately $30 million dollars overall for drug testing. To put this figure in some context, the 2005 testing budget for the United States Anti Doping Agency, the organization financially responsible for all amateur athletic testing in the U.S., was $5.6 million. For the same year, the budget for the World Anti Doping Agency, which pays for out-of-competition testing for Olympic athletes, was $2.1 million.
Question: What types of medications are permitted for use in a racehorse?
Dr. Benson: Medication(s) used to control exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage are allowed in all states. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are permitted 24 hours prior to a race. Other therapeutic medications are allowed but not on the day of the race.
Question: What types of medications are not permitted for use in a racehorse?
Dr. Benson: For the most part, anything that isn’t expressly permitted by rule is prohibited.
Question: Why do Thoroughbred racehorses bleed from the lungs and why do you see so many 2-year-old runners already being administered Lasix?
Dr. Benson: Just about all horses bleed (90+%). From those running around in the pasture to Quarter Horses barrel racing to Clydesdales pulling the Budweiser cart to Thoroughbreds on the track, they all suffer from Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage to varying degrees at maximal exertion. It is part of being a “flight” animal as opposed to a “fight” animal. The reason you see many 2-year-olds on it is that many veterinarians feel that the earlier in the career of the horse you begin furosemide, the less the horse will bleed over the course of his/her career. There is some preventative effect in controlling bleeding before it becomes a chronic problem. Blood is not normally found in the lung tissue and airways so when it is present it creates inflammation. That inflammation makes it more likely the horse will bleed again. Certainly there is some “everyone else is on it so I should be too,” but there are valid reasons to use it at a young age.
Question: Do you think that there should be tougher regulations on horse trainers to report the use of drugs prior to racing?
Dr. Benson: The veterinarian is the person responsible for tracking and reporting the administration of medications to the horse, not the trainer. There are rules in place that force the veterinarian to either turn in treatment reports on all horses or make them available for inspection by the state regulating body. I don’t think anything further needs to be done as long as those rules are enforced.
Question: What is the policy and related penalty regarding the administration of phenylbutazone?
Dr. Benson: Phenylbutazone is allowed by every U.S. state via a single intravenous dose at 24 hours prior to post time of the race. It is regulated by a threshold in plasma. Violations are based on the overage of the threshold and depend on how much over the threshold the quantified concentration is. It ranges from a small fine to a suspension and larger fine.
Question: We hear a lot about steroid use in human athletes. Are steroids used in racehorses?
Dr. Benson: First, it is important to understand that there are two distinct types of steroids. Corticosteroids (prednisone, dexamethasone, etc.) are generally used to relieve inflammation. They are commonly used to treat inflammation in joints and in the airways of racehorses. The second type of steroids is anabolic steroids. They are used primarily by veterinarians to keep horses eating and training aggressively. They also are used to replace hormones lost in male horses after being castrated.
Question: Are racehorses permitted to race while being given either type of steroids?
Dr. Benson: Generally, horses are not allowed to receive either type of steroids within 24 hours of a race. One exception is in Florida, where horses can receive prednisolone (a corticosteroid) on the day of the race. RMTC's model rule on anabolic steroids, which eliminates those medications from racing competition, has been adopted or is in the process of being adopted in every major racing state (representing approximately 99.98% of the total Thoroughbred parimutuel handle in 2009).
Question: What are the current procedures for testing racehorses for illegal medications?
Dr. Benson: All horses that win and those that are selected by the stewards for testing must report to the test barn at the racetrack immediately after the race. In the test barn, urine and blood samples are collected and are sent overnight to a forensic laboratory employed by the racing commission. Samples are screened for a wide variety of drugs by the laboratory. If there are no suspicious findings, the laboratory “clears” the sample. If there is a suspicious finding on the screening test, a more specific, “confirmatory” test is employed to either confirm or deny the screening test result. A positive is called if both tests are in agreement and the commission is notified of the result. Depending on the specific laboratory finding and the results of any investigation, the horse may be disqualified and the trainer penalized with a fine and/or suspension.
Question: Why is it necessary to collect both blood and urine samples from the horse post-race? Why can't the testing laboratories test just urine or serum and not both?
Dr. Benson: Plasma is generally an easier medium for laboratories to perform quantitative analysis. Unfortunately, many drugs “leave” the plasma very quickly so not all drugs can be detected by plasma analysis alone. So, urine is still necessary to detect some drugs in the screening process. As technology improves however, drug testing will be less and less dependant on urine.
Question: What does “milkshaking” a horse mean?
Dr. Benson: Milkshaking refers to the administration of a buffering agent to a horse immediately prior to a race. The buffering agents are typically weak bases such as sodium bicarbonate and can be administered orally or through a nasogastric tube directly into the horse’s stomach. The theory behind administration is that lactic acid is the cause of muscle fatigue and by neutralizing this acid with a base, the muscle will not fatigue as quickly and, therefore, the horse has more stamina. Milkshaking is prohibited and most jurisdictions test for the administration of such products.
Question: Has the RMTC considered whether hyperbaric oxygen theraphy impacts performances of horses?
Dr. Benson: We have discussed the use of hyperbaric oxygen a couple of times but to this point, have taken no action in terms of adding language to the model rules. There are a couple of reasons: 1. Any potential effect from the increased level of oxygen in the blood is exceedingly temporary. As soon as the animal comes out of the "tank," the body is basically trying to revert back to normal. This happens quickly once the animal is breathing normal air, so you would almost have to take the horse straight to the gate from the machine. 2. There is no research on effect on performance in the horse but there is a fair amount in the human. Almost all of the research indicates no benefit in performance parameters from hyperbaric therapy. In fact, a couple of studies hint it may hinder performance.
We are keeping our eyes on this issue, and we could change our stance if new info comes to light. From a pure perception standpoint, I am not sure I would recommend allowing a hyperbaric oxygen chamber on the backstretch. But if someone is using one on a training center, the effect is gone by the time that horse is back on the grounds.
Question: Is it legal for a trainer to have vials of injectables, needles and syringes on a farm or training center, and, if not, what can be done about it?
Dr. Benson: In the vast majority of the states, training centers and farms are not under the jurisdiction of the state racing commission and therefore the rules of racing do not apply. In order to change this, depending on the state, the commission would need to be given the power to license and regulate farms and training centers by rule or by statute. This can be done but it will take a push from the concerned licensees within the state to make it happen.
Question: Does the RMTC have a formal policy regarding shockwave therapy? If so, how is it enforced?
Dr. Benson: The official RMTC policy and the RCI Model Rule prohibits the use of ESWT within 10 days of a race. This was based largely on the early work done by Dr. Scott McClure at Iowa State that showed an analgesic effect from 3-5 days. Given the possible danger to horse and rider, we felt the additional days were warranted. The biggest problem in terms of enforcement is the use of the machine off racetrack grounds where commissions typically do not have jurisdiction. If someone is caught using ESWT off jurisdictional grounds within the prohibited time period before a race, however, they could be charged with a violation depending on how good the evidence is. The fact that the commission doesn't have jurisdiction only means they cannot send investigators, have a horse identifier present or otherwise regulate what happens real-time. It does not mean they cannot pursue a violation that occurs off grounds if they have strong enough evidence to pursue it. At the very least, assuming the horse is entered to run, the horse could be scratched.
Question: Are the procedures for testing racehorses the same, regardless of state and regardless of breed of horse?
Dr. Benson: No. Procedures vary widely from state to state and usually depend on the level of funding a state has for the testing budget.
Question: Why doesn’t the racing industry have a uniform national medication policy?
Dr. Benson: Racing is regulated by each state that conducts pari-mutuel wagering. In order to have uniform rules, all 38 states that regulate racing would have to adopt the same rule. However, each state is most concerned with what is happening in its own jurisdiction and that makes achieving uniform rules for anything in racing difficult.
Question: What is being done to create a uniform national medication policy?
Dr. Benson: The RMTC has worked diligently on a uniform medication policy since its inception. The RMTC Board examines the best available science to develop model rule language that can then be adopted by each individual commission. This is an admittedly slow process, but it has been very successful to date.
Question: What does the RMTC Model Policy cover?
Dr. Benson: The policy covers all aspects medication and testing, including race-day medications, penalties, testing and prohibited practices.
Question: How many jurisdictions have adopted the RMTC Model Policy?
Dr. Benson: As of August 1, 2010, 31 of 34 states currently conducting horse racing have adopted the model rules, and no state has indicated to the RMTC that it does not wish to participate. The process for adopting rules varies from state to state and can be quite lengthy, depending on the number of steps a state must go through to adopt rules of any sort.
Question: How many states have adopted your model rule on uniform penalties?
Dr. Benson: Actually, it is inaccurate to say “adopted” since that implies by rule. Approximately 20 states are using our penalty language, the majority as simply a policy guideline.
Question: One project of the RMTC is to establish guidelines for withdrawal times for therapeutic medications that racetrack veterinarians commonly administer to horses. What is the definition of “withdrawal times”?
Dr. Benson: Quite simply, a withdrawal time is the length of time a drug must be withdrawn in order to avoid a positive test.
Question: What else is the RMTC doing to ensure the integrity of horse racing?
Dr. Benson: The RMTC is the only national source of funding for research projects that seek to develop test for substances of abuse in racing such as erythropoietin (EPO). Research is also conducted to better understand the use of therapeutic medications and how they may impact the integrity of the race.
The RMTC has also funded special projects related to improving backstretch security. The Big Event Team, which is coordinated by the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, is one such project and has been very successful. The Big Event Team ranges from several to a dozen investigators who arrive at a racetrack approximately 72 hours prior to a major racing event and works with members of track security and local law enforcement to ensure a level playing field for all participants in the race.
Question: What has the RMTC learned from its experience with the Big Event Team?
Dr. Benson: The most important lesson learned is that the bigger the presence of “feet on the ground” in the backstretch area, the greater the deterrent for unethical activity.
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