Bobby Zen

by Bill Finley and Dan Ross

The Louisiana Racing Commission has put in place what it is calling “Active Emergency Rules of Racing,” to go into effect on June 8. These new regulations have raised the permissible dosage and shrunk the allowable withdrawal times for several medications, most notably the bronchodilator Clenbuterol and corticosteroid Depo-Medrol.

The decision by the Louisiana Racing Commission–which has already garnered significant push-back from within and without the industry–was done in an attempt to make the sport safer, the Commission’s Executive Director Stephen Landry told the TDN.

That thinking runs counter to what has become conventional wisdom in racing–that restricting drug use is the best way to make the sport safer. But Landry said he was confident that the direction the Commission has taken will prove beneficial to the horses competing in the state.

“The rules were changed to allow trainers to train their horses and veterinarians to treat their horses in a way they felt would increase safety,” said Landry.

Landry, who has held his current position for about two months, said he understands why there has been a backlash after the new rules were released. But he said he wants people to understand that the changes were made with good intentions.

“We’re very hopeful that there won’t be a statistical anomaly that shows we did the wrong thing. We will monitor that,” said Landry. “We want to promote horse racing and safety. The last thing that I’d like anybody to believe is that we in Louisiana don’t care about the horse or are looking to allow cheaters to have a place to operate.”

Landry said that Dr. Steven Barker was instrumental in writing the rules. Barker was the Commission’s chief chemist for 29 years. He is now a Professor Emeritus at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine. Like Landry, he said he expects the changes will prove to be beneficial to the well-being of racing’s athletes.

“The rules had become more and more strict about when and how much or if you can use therapeutic medications that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration,” Barker said. “This was in response to that.”

As testing thresholds have lowered and testing equipment has gotten more sensitive, “we’re at a point where you can get a positive for picograms of a commonly used therapeutic. At those levels you have absolutely no pharmacology. This is an adjustment in response to that. The pendulum in these things always swings to the left or the right. There is such a thing as being too conservative or too liberal. We’re trying to come back to something that is more reasonable, rational and scientifically based,” said Barker.

“It takes a while for these things to clear down to the levels that have been set. Inflammation itself is one of the more damaging afflictions in athletes because it causes tissue damage. Not treating it adds to the possibility that it will have some detrimental effect in the future,” he added.

The Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) has no jurisdiction over racing rules and regulations in Louisiana.

Larry Findley is a licensed veterinarian who sits on the Louisiana State Racing Commission.

Findley said he stands fully behind the new set of “emergency” medication rules passed by the Commission, at the same time rebuffing criticisms that the new rules could lead to an increase in equine fatalities.

“God gave us these beautiful creatures and we are here to take care of them, not to abuse them. So, the withdrawal times that they’ve come up with in my experience are not going to increase breakdowns,” said Findley.

Among some of the more controversial aspects of the rule changes concern the corticosteroid Depo-Medrol, permitting its intra-articular use at 200 mg seven days before a race. The current rules in Louisiana limit a 100 mg injection of Depo-Medrol 21 days before a race.

Depo-Medrol is a long-acting corticosteroid. Studies have shown it to have a potentially detrimental effect on the joints if not used judiciously.

Nevertheless, Findley said that the new rules around Depo-Medrol are adequately restrictive, arguing that the drug is not commonly used on the backstretch anymore, replaced by more effective corticosteroids like Triamcinolone.

“Now, if you inject that horse [with Depo-Medrol] once a week, you’re going do damage,” said Findley. “But one injection of Depo-Medrol is not going to hurt a horse.”

Findley said he similarly disagrees that collectively, the new rules surrounding corticosteroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) won’t mask the sorts of injuries that can turn catastrophic during fast works or racing. Instead, they are designed, said Findley, to be used in conjunction with other approaches to diagnosing injuries.

“If the horse is sore, somebody ought to be X-raying and determining, ‘Is this a chip? Is this nothing? Is it just inflammation? Does he need operating on? Do you need to rest him?’ Those kinds of things need to be made by the veterinarian taking care of the horse at the racetrack.”

Modern advances in diagnostic equipment illustrate that those subtle bone changes proven to lead to catastrophic breakdowns–many of which are not visible to the naked eye–are often missed by more common approaches like X-ray and nuclear scintigraphy, and can only be picked up by more cutting-edge diagnostic equipment like PET and MRI. These machines are readily available to the racing industry at only a few places around the country.

Evangeline Downs | Courtesy Evangeline Downs

Findley said that if the Commission sees an up-tick in equine fatalities subsequent to the new rules going into effect, the Commission would return to these rules for possible revision.

The Louisiana Racing Commission does not currently make equine fatality data public on its website, as many other jurisdictions do. Nor do Louisiana tracks publicly post their equine fatality statistics on The Jockey Club’s “Equine Injury Database.”

Several prominent trainers who routinely ship into Louisiana Thursday voiced concern and frustration with the new rules, one saying it might create an “unfair playing field” for them, and others pointing to the headaches of trying to navigate a fractured set of rules.

When asked about these trainers’ concerns, Findley disagreed that the new rules make operating a barn more difficult for them.

“Not to me it doesn’t,” said Findley. “It’s common sense to me. You should know you should look it up. It’s available. And we do it for them. We take care of them. We tell them what to give.”

In April, HISA issued a report showing how racetracks operating under its rules reported 1.23 racing-related equine fatalities per 1,000 starts in 2023, while non-HISA tracks reported a rate of 1.63 racing-related equine fatalities per 1,000 starts. Findley said that he did not believe HISA’s much stricter medication rules led to a safer sport.

“I think they can make data do whatever it wanted to do, but I don’t think those rules are any safer personally,” said Findley. “The government tries to control too much, in my opinion, the federal government. And that’s what HISA is,” Findley added. “You can tell everybody in the whole world, I’m totally against HISA.”

When asked if the Louisiana government would try to intercede if the privately run Churchill Downs sought to institute its own tighter house medication rules, Findley said that would be his “personal preference,” but he added that such a scenario was very much a hypothetical. “Churchill Downs is not a veterinarian,” Findley added.

Disagreement

Other veterinary experts around the country strongly disagree with the stance taken by the Louisiana Racing Commission, many of them describing the new rules as a drastic reverse step in terms of equine and human welfare and safety.

“Quite frankly, it’s a major step backwards as far as horse health and safety is concerned, as well as for the riders,” said Jeff Blea, the California Horse Racing Board’s Equine Medical Director.

Among Blea’s most pointed concerns with Louisiana’s new rules is the loosening of restrictions around NSAIDS, allowing their use 24 hours from a race.

“That has a very profound effect on regulatory vet exams on race day,” said Blea, explaining how these anti-inflammatory drugs can mask the potential presence of a brewing injury, one that might prove catastrophic under high stress.

The same principle applies to Blea’s condemnation of Louisiana’s new rules surrounding intra-articular corticosteroid injections. California regulators have long stressed their belief the state’s strict rules on joint injections implemented several years ago significantly contributed to a much reduced equine fatality rate.

“We had a lot of these same rules in place for a lot of years and look where it got us, as far as fatalities,” said Blea, looking back at the rules in place in California prior to the well-advertised rash of fatalities at Santa Anita in 2019. “But we made a lot of drastic changes, and they are drastic, but they made a huge difference in drastically reducing fatalities.”

Similarly, Blea disagrees with the emergency rules around Clenbuterol. Come June 8 in Louisiana, the drug can be given to a horse within 72 hours of a race. Currently in Louisiana, the withdrawal time for Clenbuterol is 14 days before a race.

Under HISA, Clenbuterol can be prescribed by a veterinarian for a duration not to exceed 30 days in a six-month period. After administration, the horse is placed on the veterinarians’ list and is not eligible to participate in a workout or race until blood samples have been taken that show that the drug is no longer in the horse’s system.

“It’s got a known anabolic effect,” said Blea, of the drug. “It has a history of being abused in the industry, which is one of the biggest reasons for moving the regulations out to 21 days.”

The new rules also remove any restrictions on the use of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium (CMPK) solutions, which are believed to have a calming effect on horses.

“If there are no regulation over that on race day, how do you protect the integrity of the horse and people betting on the horse?” said Blea.

Ryan Carpenter, a Southern California-based veterinarian, takes a similar position to Blea. “It’s kind of what you’d expect coming from an anti-HISA state,” he said.

At the same time, Carpenter described the cultural shift in horsemanship that has taken place in California since the advent of much tighter medication rules some five years ago–an evolution in veterinary care that ultimately benefitted the horse, he said.

“One thing very discouraging to me is this idea you can’t train horses without medication,” said Carpenter. “We all felt that way 10 years ago here in California, but then realized pretty quickly that you can do a good and effective job without overloading them on corticosteroids and non-steroidals. They don’t have to have it.”

Carpenter added how he used to give Lasix and Banamine (an NSAID also referred to as flunixin) routinely to horses that worked, believing these drugs to be beneficial to their recovery.

“I felt that if I did that, the horses would work better, would be less sore the day after they worked, and therefore, could maintain an active training regimen more consistently, and better prepare for a race with less problems,” said Carpenter.

“When we removed Banamine or Bute 48 hours before a work, I thought I’d be checking a bunch of sore horses the day after they worked. But they actually were no different than when I gave it. So, clearly the Banamine that I thought was so important before the work really didn’t do a whole lot,” Carpenter said.

The main thing for the industry, including Louisiana, is a veterinary approach prefaced upon individual horse needs, rather than a “paint brush of what you can give,” said Carpenter. “That’s where we have been as an industry for a while–we give it because we can, and not because the horse necessarily needs it.”

Former LRC equine medical director Tom David said that he believes the new rules set Louisiana racing back “about 50 years” on medication usage. “In 1968 at Evangeline Downs, these rules are about what we were racing off of then. I just think it’s terrible,” said David.

“Louisiana has got this idea, the [Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association] and a couple veterinarians on the Racing Commission now, that they think they know more than the rest of the country. But that absolutely makes no sense,” said David.

The new withdrawal time for Clenbuterol opens the door for trainers to use it for performance-enhancing purposes, rather than as a bronchodilator, said David. “Clenbuterol has a definite anabolic property, and when you race on it with that short of an interval, that’s what they’ll be giving it for,” he said.

And because both the fetlock joint and sesamoid bones are a key focal point for catastrophic injury, the new rules on corticosteroid intra-articular injections in particular could lead to an increase in equine fatalities, warned David.

“You’re going to inhibit the ability of the examining veterinarian of identifying if a horse has a problem,” said David. “There’s much more research to support what HISA is doing. And this thing that Louisiana has come up with, it smells.”

Kevin Dunleavy is a Kentucky-based veterinarian who for many years practiced at Fair Grounds during its annual winter meet, though didn’t travel to Fair Grounds for the last meet.

Dunleavy called the rule changes a “dramatic swing away” from the increasingly conservative prevailing approach to medication regulations elsewhere in the U.S.

Dunleavy leveled his “biggest concern” for the connections of horses shipping into and out of Louisiana from HISA-regulated jurisdictions, where the medication rules are more stringent. Because of that, these horses could be seen to be at a “perceived disadvantage” performance-wise against horses stabled year-round in Louisiana.

“You’ve got to be really careful about withdrawing,” said Dunleavy, pointing specifically to Clenbuterol. “We like to think that everyone using it is using it therapeutically. But in the same respect, we know that not everyone does.”

The post Louisiana Racing Commission Says New Rules Will Make the Sport Safer, Other Veterinary Experts Say the Opposite Will Happen appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

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