The Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council, which met Dec. 21 for the first time since the fall of 2003, has mostly new members and a new agenda that includes updated and cohesive regulations and perhaps major changes to the state's race-day medication policy for Thoroughbred racing.
The tone was set early in the meeting when Gov. Ernie Fletcher addressed the council. Fletcher, who also attended the first meeting of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority earlier this year, said if Kentucky is going to promote horse racing and breeding as its signature industry, it must have sound regulation, integrity, and credibility.
Later in the meeting, chairwoman Connie Whitfield talked of "the appearance as well as the fact" many people believe Kentucky has the most permissive medication policy in the country. She said the drug council must meet head on accusations that "in Kentucky horse racing, there are only cheaters and losers."
The drug council serves in an advisory capacity to the racing authority. The previous council spent most of its time discussing recommendations for equine drug research and left most drug-policy matters to the old Kentucky Racing Commission, which Fletcher abolished.
In September 2002, under pressure as a national movement for medication uniformity picked up steam, the racing commission revised its race-day medication policy by greatly reducing the number of permitted substances that could be used along with Salix, the anti-bleeder medication. That policy, which remains in place, allows no more than two non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, no more than one steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, and two adjunct anti-bleeder medications.
Some horsemen and veterinarians in Kentucky have actively defended the current drug policy on the basis that the health of the racehorse is paramount. The model rules being circulated by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium currently allows only Salix on race days.
Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said after the meeting he believed Whitfield's comments about "a cloud of suspicion" and "cheaters and losers" were "inappropriate and damaging to Kentucky racing." Maline said he hopes the horsemen's group has an opportunity to present its position on medication.
Kentucky HBPA president Susan Bunning, a member of the drug council, is expected to present that position at the council's next meeting Jan. 14. Bunning, during the Dec. 21 meeting, said she believes equine drug testing in Kentucky is extensive and perhaps superior to testing in other states where the medication rules may be tighter.
Jim Gallagher, executive director of the KHRA, outlined the current racing statutes as they pertain to medication. They lack cohesion, contain misspellings, and don't include some policy changes made by the old racing commission.
"It certainly could be shored up from a rule-mechanics standpoint," said Gallagher, who was a longtime regulator in New York and also headed up the National Thoroughbred Racing Association "super testing" program of a few years back. "It's administratively problematic."
Kentucky Sen. Damon Thayer, a member of the drug council, said the betting public must be part of the equation. He noted that only Salix is denoted in past performances for Kentucky racing even though multiple substances can be used in racehorses.
Thayer said "non-reportable" drugs could lead to a lack of confidence by the betting public. He said such a practice is counter to Fletcher's calls for integrity.
Just how far the drug council will go in its recommendations to the racing authority remains to be seen. But trainer John Ward, a member of the national consortium, said Kentucky must refine the process, rely only on scientific evidence, and support uniformity.
"The time in now to modernize the system and use scientific evidence and research as the basis to make decisions, not hearsay from veterinarians," Ward said.
The council also noted how medication rules wildly differ for Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds in the state. For harness racing, only Salix is permitted on race days, while Bute is allowed only 24 hours before a race. There is random testing for "milkshakes," and detention barns are used for stakes. In general, harness regulations are uniform around the country, officials said.
It was noted that, even though the racing commission prohibited milkshakes for use in Thoroughbreds, no pre-race testing is performed. Alan Leavitt, a Standardbred breeder who operates Walnut Hall Ltd. near Lexington, said he doesn't want to see the push for national uniformity loosen the current harness regulations in the state.
"I don't think we'd be willing to give up any of our integrity," said Leavitt, a member of the drug council. "If Thoroughbred racing is really concerned about integrity, why don't they race the Kentucky Derby out of a 24-hour detention barn?"
Whitfield said the council's first task would be determining "appropriate drug standards." Key issues will be testing procedures, backstretch security, and penalties, she said.