Regulation of Steroids Turns a Corner

The ongoing process of regulating anabolic steroids may have turned a corner.

Anyone who caught the opening comments of the March 26 medication roundtable in Austin, Texas, but left early and returned at its conclusion would have thought the worst—an industry meeting on the divisive topic of use of drugs in racehorses had finally come to physical blows.

The meeting at the historic Driskill Hotel began with Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, saying hotel management had requested participants leave their guns at the door. And Dr. Robert Lewis of the American Association of Equine Practitioners promised he left his pistol in his truck.

At the end of the three-hour meeting, Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and somewhat of a lightning rod on medication issues, was carted out in a wheelchair pushed by his wife, Wanda. Had it finally happened?

“It’s sciatica,” Stirling said.

The pain certainly tempered Stirling’s comments during the meeting, which covered a wide range of topics from anabolic steroids to laboratory testing procedures. Stirling in January took heat from other industry officials for organizing a National HBPA medication meeting at which a chemist ripped the model rule on steroids.

But his take on the March 25 Racing Medication and Testing Consortium meeting, at which the model rule on steroids was revised, was positive. If anything, it was a sign the ongoing process of implementing regulation of steroids had turned an important corner.

“I’m one of the obstructionists,” Stirling said. “I’m the whipping boy for anabolic steroids. But horsemen now have an understanding of what it is. It was pretty much handled yesterday. I think we solved a lot of problems.”

The RMTC has now recommended a 90-day grace period at the outset of regulation of steroids, with notification for owners and trainers when there is a positive test absent aggravating circumstances, such as a repeat offense. Pre-race tests must be made available to horsemen, and claims can be voided should a horse test positive.

The RMTC also recommended that all jurisdictions follow the penalty guidelines in the model rule. The regulations call for testing thresholds in urine for four Federal Drug Administration-approved steroids, with plasma thresholds to be added when research is completed this summer.

Thus far, the model rule has been adopted--though not to the letter--in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Another 15-20 states are in the process of adopting the rule, said Dr. Scot Waterman, executive director of the RMTC.

“We’ve added a little more specificity to the model rule,” said Lewis, chairman of the RMTC and moderator of the March 26 roundtable. “It’s pretty clear we do have our concerns. Our goal is to keep this on the front burner.”

One of the concerns is that jurisdictions are tweaking the rule to suit their interests, not an uncommon practice in the pari-mutuel industry. Overall, however, there is no public opposition to regulation of steroids.

Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board who had a racetrack veterinary practice for 30 years, said it’s time to move on. Arthur said he treated champions such as John Henry, Kotashaan, and Tiznow—horses that didn’t race on steroids.

“They are not necessary,” Arthur said of anabolic steroids. “They are a tool to keep horses in training. How can we say anabolic steroids are all right for our racehorses but not all right for any other athletic endeavor in the country?”

Arthur also commented on statements made by Dr. Don Caitlin during the recent Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in Lexington. Catlin, who founded the Anti-Doping Research Institute and has focused on drug use in human athletes, said the horseracing industry isn’t ready to regulate steroids.

“I dispute Dr. Catlin’s knowledge of drug testing across the country,” Arthur said. “We are absolutely 100% ready to institute the model rule in California. It’s not a difficult rule to administer.”

Regulators noted a major issue is funding. Because of finances, some jurisdictions may have their laboratories test for steroids in urine rather than plasma. It’s widely believed plasma testing is the most effective, though Dr. Walter Hyde of Iowa State University said Iowa has been testing for steroids in urine for years with success.

“Will blood testing be better? It may well be,” Hyde said. “But the fact is right now, what if resources are tight? Do you want to wait and do nothing, or do some kind of deterrent right now?”

There was no consensus at the roundtable on how jurisdictions can overcome financial obstacles given the fact state funding for regulatory agencies for horse racing is in decline. National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and chief executive officer Alex Waldrop suggested a push for tax relief.

Waldrop said government gets about $300 million a year from the horse industry, most of it through pari-mutuel wagering taxes. The NTRA is currently working on tax-reform legislation that could return some of that money to the industry.

“For some reason, the horse industry became a cash cow for government, and we can’t get that money back,” Waldrop said. “You can’t keep the purse strings tight and then expect us to properly regulate the industry. That to me is a source of money we have to access.”

Also on March 26, the National HBPA executive committee met in conjunction with the RCI convention. National HBPA CEO Remi Bellocq said the horsemen’s group plans to form a model rules working group that will establish an ongoing dialogue with regulators.

Bellocq said the goal is to keep from getting “caught by surprise” when new rules are developed. He said it’s important for regulators to get the horsemen’s perspective.

“We may not always agree on everything, but moving forward, we’ll be engaged,” Bellocq said.