Progress in racing's war on drugs started with a report in August 2000 from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Task Force on Racing Integrity and Drug Testing at The Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The following year, the American Association of Equine Practitioners organized a "medication summit" held in conjunction with the University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Program's Symposium on Racing in December.
Momentum carried over into the spring of 2002, when the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium was formed with a mission to "develop, promote, and coordinate, at the national level, policies, research, and educational programs which seek to ensure the fairness and integrity of racing and the health and welfare of racehorses and participants, and protect the interests of the betting public." Relying largely on the participants from the AAEP's summit, the RMTC comprised a broad base of industry stakeholders.
In the ensuing years, progress has been slow but steady. Model rules have been written and, more importantly, adopted by a number of state regulatory agencies. Research has been funded. Drug testing has improved through better coordination and communications among state laboratories and regulators. In short, there is no question the industry is better off because of the work of the RMTC.
Now the consortium is ready to take on anabolic steroids, which are used freely and legally in most racing states. Steroids have been at the center of scandals in numerous sports, particularly track and field and baseball, but the only steroid scandal in racing is that they are legal. Dr. Rick Arthur, a former surgeon and racetrack practitioner who is now equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board and secretary of the RMTC, thinks the general public is unaware that anabolic steroids are not prohibited in American racing. They are banned in virtually every other racing jurisdiction around the world.
Steroids are classified as a therapeutic medication and are used as such by numerous trainers and veterinarians. If a horse is not eating and underweight, has a dull coat of hair, recently had surgery, or is coming off a particularly demanding race, a small amount of an anabolic steroid like Winstrol (generic name stanozolol) is often prescribed on a temporary basis to improve appetite and help a horse recuperate.
But that same substance can and is being abused by some who put their horses on an unending anabolic steroids program designed to build muscle mass and enhance performance. That kind of abuse can cause a horse's well-being to deteriorate quickly once the horse is taken off the program. Trainers in the claiming business have discovered the detrimental effect steroids have had on horses claimed from trainers abusing the medication.
Some have theorized, just as in human sports, that anabolic steroids can shorten a career or cause a horse to be more injury-prone because extra body mass strains the bones and skeleton. "It's like a two-ton truck running on 13-inch wheels," one horseman said.
Because of the legitimate therapeutic use of anabolic steroids, the RMTC is not expected to recommend an outright ban, and zero-tolerance testing is not likely to be part of any proposal made to the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which currently labels anabolic steroids as Class 4 drugs. The RMTC is pushing to move them into the more highly regulated Class 3 category.
Last year at this time, an AAEP Task Force on Medication Issues at Public Auction recommended a ban on anabolic steroids in sale horses. The proposed ban was part of a comprehensive medication policy prepared by AAEP veterinarians on behalf of the Sales Integrity Program.
Those policies have not yet been enacted by the Sales Integrity Program or individual auction houses. But even a discussion about medication policy of sale horses is a sign of progress.
The same goes for the regulation of anabolic steroids in racing. The industry is moving in the right direction, thanks to the steady hand and perseverance of the RMTC.