This is the second in a series of posts, corresponding with horse racing’s Triple Crown, examining safety issues facing the sport. Part one appears here.
When nine horses leave the gates at Pimlico in the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown Saturday afternoon, they will mark the end of a sporting era. For the last time, the Preakness Stakes will be run under medical and drug testing rules that are set solely by the state of Maryland, thanks to an agreement among eight mid-Atlantic and northeastern states that will set uniform medication and drug testing standards beginning in 2014.
The compact, agreed to by New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Massachusetts, is the result of push to bring some uniformity to horse racing’s medication and drug rules that has lasted for nearly a decade, years in which the sport has faced questions about both performance-enhancing drugs and therapeutic medications used to treat horses both in the days leading up to races and on race days themselves.
Horse racing banned the use of anabolic steroids in 2008, when Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown tested positive for Winstrol, a performance enhancing drug, and runner-up Eight Belles collapsed shortly after the finish line and was euthanized on the track. But other drugs, mostly therapeutic in nature and used to treat routine injuries, are still wildly prevalent, raising questions in an American industry that is dealing with higher rates of catastrophic breakdowns and fatalities among its horses than its foreign counterparts — and a general lack of data and research into how to improve it.
“Racing fatality rates in the U.S. are two- to three-times higher than other major racing countries that don’t allow phenylbutazone and other drugs,” Dr. Rick M. Arthur, the equine medical director at the University of California-Davis and the California Horse Racing Board, said at The Jockey Club’s annual meeting last year. “My international colleagues have no doubt our medication policies, especially in phenylbutazone, are the cause of this disparity. I’m not convinced it is that simple, but there is no question medication regulation is the most glaring difference between U.S. and other major racing countries.”
The eight-state compact is not the first major step toward addressing and improving the medication of horses in the United States — in a business regulated on a state-by-state basis, states have made their own adjustments to which drugs can be used and when they can be administered. But the compact is the biggest step in streamlining the process and standardizing medical practices and drug testing across state lines. With the help of scientists and experts across the industry, the eight states identified 24 drugs that are “appropriate for therapeutic use in racehorses to treat illness or injury” and set standards for when they can be administered and how much of the drugs can be present in a horse’s body on race day. It also identified other drugs that cannot be present in a horse on race day under any circumstances.