Working in the light of day

Dr. Scott Palmer, VMD Courtesy Dr. Scott Palmer

After reading Paul Moran's recent editorial, "The hunt for the next drug test," and working for the past two years to improve the safety and welfare of racehorses, the American Association of Equine Practitioners agrees that more funding is needed to increase the racing industry's ability to detect illegal drugs through the development of new tests. Even though testing in horse racing is far superior in many respects to testing in human athletics, the concern remains among horse racing fans and industry participants that medication is being used illegally.

An even bigger medication issue for horse racing is a lack of testing uniformity among racing jurisdictions. Some states have more money than others to dedicate to drug testing programs. The AAEP supports the establishment of a small number of regional confirmation/reference laboratories that are adequately funded so that the racing industry can meet the current challenges of drug testing, including the rapid development of new tests to detect illegal drugs. The integrity of racing needs uniform laboratory testing protocols as well as uniform regulations for out-of-competition testing.

Unfortunately, Mr. Moran reveals his ignorance of the veterinary profession when he broadly says that illegal drugs introduced to the sport "is the work of the veterinary community, which operates in the shadows, hidden from public scrutiny." This is a blatant mischaracterization of the veterinary profession that is inappropriate and irresponsible. Interestingly, most of the nearly 30 veterinarians currently members of the AAEP Racing Committee were unfamiliar with the drug myoinositol tripyrosphate (ITPP) until Mr. Moran mentioned it in his editorial. Only members of the committee who work in a regulatory role, or those working directly with the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC), were aware of its possible use in horse racing. Using a literature search on the Internet, I was able to locate a reference article by Andreia Biolo (et al) that investigated the enhanced exercise capacity of mice with severe heart failure after being treated with ITPP. The article was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in December 2008. However prestigious, this is not a journal ordinarily read by veterinarians.

I do not disagree with Mr. Moran that we are engaged in a race between those who would cheat and those who regulate the sport. Nor am I so naïve to suggest that some veterinarians don't push the envelope in an effort to gain advantage with medication. Nevertheless, this gross mischaracterization of the veterinary profession diverts attention from the real issues involved in the regulation of medication. By its very nature, the process of detection and regulation lags behind the process of experimentation with new drugs. Ethical veterinarians work in the light of day to assist regulators and researchers to expedite this process and help promote the safety and integrity of racing. I would point out that the individuals who operate these laboratories are, for the most part, veterinarians. The RMTC is chaired by a veterinarian. Medical directors who advise racing commissions are veterinarians. Individuals who examine horses prior to racing are veterinarians. Ethical practitioners who work on the backstretch to provide state-of-the-art healthcare to racehorses are veterinarians. When a positive test occurs, veterinarians proved to be culpable in the medication offense should be subject to disciplinary action as well as the trainer. This is the position of the RMTC, and the AAEP supports this view.

The portrayal of trainers as passive participants in the medication of racehorses at the direction of a veterinarian indicates a lack of understanding of the working relationship between trainers and veterinarians in a pari-mutuel environment. The owner hires a trainer to train and manage his horse(s). The trainer, acting as agent for the horse owner, makes the daily decisions regarding management and health care. Experienced trainers capably manage the routine heath care and lameness of horses in their stable, just as we would take care of our own routine health care or minor injuries. When more serious conditions occur, trainers hire or consult with one or more veterinarians. The horse is best served when the owner, trainer and veterinarian act as a team, working together after full disclosure and evaluation of the diagnostic and therapeutic options.

As part of our work to protect the safety and welfare of the racehorse, the AAEP will soon release clinical guidelines for veterinarians who treat racehorses. Our clinical guidelines include recommendations on a wide range of veterinary practices that place appropriate emphasis upon the safety and welfare of racehorses. These guidelines should be interpreted in the context of the AAEP White Papers on Thoroughbred, Standard-bred and Quarter Horse racing, which can be found at www.aaep.org. Veterinarians share the industry's concerns about the future of racing and are committed to our continued work with The Jockey Club, the NTRA, the RMTC, the ARCI and other organizations to find solutions.

Scott Palmer, VMD, is the owner of New Jersey Equine Clinic in Clarksburg, N.J., and is the chair of the AAEP Racing Committee.