CHRB OKs Lower Bute Level, Claiming Rule

Board takes action over objections of trainers during meeting at Del Mar July 21.

A reduction in the allowable level of the common pain reliever phenylbutazone in post-race tests was approved on a split vote by the California Horse Racing Board July 21 over the objections of horsemen.

The board, meeting at the simulcast facility at Del Mar, also approved on a split vote a controversial rule that would void the claim of a horse that suffers a fatality during the running of a race or before it returns to be unsaddled. The California Thoroughbred Trainers as well as new Thoroughbred Owners of California president Lou Raffetto spoke against the proposal.

Both measures were advocated by CHRB commissioner Bo Derek and had the strong support of Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director.

The permitted threshold for phenylbutazone, commonly known as Bute, will be reduced from 5 micrograms per milliliter of blood plasma or serum to 2 micrograms. The rule change becomes effective Jan. 1, 2012, in order to provide guidelines and a grace period to trainers to conform to the lower threshold.

The lower Bute level is being recommended by numerous horse racing bodies, including the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, Racing Commissioners International, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and The Jockey Club. The policy change follows the American Graded Stakes Committee policy and is also supported by the Jockeys' Guild and Breeders' Cup.

The vote to approve the change was 4-3, with chairman Keith Brackpool and members John Harris and Jesse Choper joining Derek, a horse welfare advocate who chairs the CHRB's medication committee. Vice chairman David Israel, Jerry Moss, and Richard Rosenberg were opposed.

Arthur told the board that studies have shown that the higher level of Bute makes it harder to detect existing injuries in horses in pre-race veterinarian examinations, increasing the potential for catastrophic injury. He said that more than 80% of horses test below the 2 ml threshold anyway.

"My judgment is the 2 milligram rule is necessary to allow the veterinarian to do the job we have asked him to do," Arthur told the board.

Derek contended that the rule change was coming to California anyway with the American Graded Stakes Committee's stance.

"I don't know why California would want to be different and allow a higher level of a pain-masking drug in a pre-race examination," she said. Afterward, she said she was happy with the board's action.

Arthur commented, "This action will do more to lower the fatality rate than anything else the board could have done. The horse won this time."

He noted that current federal legislation under consideration would ban Bute entirely and carry a six-month suspension for violators.

Dr. Mark DeDomenico, representing the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and Dr. Don Shields, a veterinarian who works with the CTT medication committee, argued the rule is unnecessary and could be counter-productive.

DeDomenico said the tougher rule will "increase the number of positives and give horse racing more negative attention." 

Shields cited studies that challenged the notion that higher Bute levels contribute to more equine injuries.

Trainer John Sadler, the CTT president, said "a vast, vast majority of California trainers feel this rule doesn't need to change."

The rule change comes with a reduction in penalties that range from a written warning to $250 for a first offense to fines of $500 or $750 for a third offense. A licensee can have the violation expunged from the records if there are no additional violations for a two-year period.

The rule change on voiding a claim in the case of a fatality was approved on a 5-2 vote with Moss and Rosenberg in opposition.

Moss said the rule "was well-intentioned and protects jockeys" but said it could penalize trainers and owners who have done nothing wrong.

Alan Balch, executive director of the CTT, said the board of the trainers' organization opposes the rule on the grounds that it has too much ambiguity, which was Raffetto's complaint as well.

Sadler asked for a delay in the decision "to work on the language."

A staff report said that six horses claimed at California tracks other than Los Alamitos suffered fatalities from Jan. 1, 2007 through Sept. 1, 2010.

Harris said the "rule may not be perfect" and would rarely come into play but could keep a trainer from running a horse that should not be on the track due to injury.

"It's a minor step forward but it sends a signal," he added.

Darrell Haire, western regional manager for the Jockeys' Guild and a former rider, told the board, "I can't tell you how many times I was told to take care of the horse and take care of yourself going around there."

Haire expressed support. "For the safey of riders and the integrity of the game, we need to pass this," he said.

The rule change must be reviewed by the state office of administrative law before taking effect and could be implemented within a month or two, CHRB executive director Kirk Breed said.