Dr. Rick Arthur, the new equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, told a meeting of state horse breeders Sept. 22 that he plans to hold veterinarians accountable when trainers they advise are found in violation of horse medication rules.
He cited a recent example in which a California trainer, who assumes ultimate responsibility for the horse's welfare under the state's "trainer insurance" rule, received a 30-day suspension from racing officials for a positive test for the class 2 drug Rompon (xylazine). The veterinarian who administered the medication got a $300 fine, he said.
"I think we got that backwards," Arthur told the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association seminar held at Harris Ranch in Coalinga. "I'm probably not making many friends with veterinarians here. We're going to call them in. What you have to realize is that the trainer insurer rule is inherently wrong in cases like these, where the trainer is only following advice."
Arthur reasons that if veterinarians knew they were being held responsible, they would be more certain to stay within legal limits.
Arthur is leaving private practice after 30 years to head the equine medical director's office Sept. 23. Currently the vice president for Oak Tree Racing Association, chairman of the board of the California Thoroughbred Horsemen's Foundation and a member of the board of directors for the Grayson/Jockey Club Research Foundation, he said his main focus will be on drug testing, backside security and horse welfare.
In a rapid fire presentation to the 100 or so members of the CTBA on hand, Arthur noted that horse fatalities and injuries continue to cost the state's racing industry. There were 207 horse fatalities in 2003, 215 in 2004 and 272 in 2005, he said, and a recent study showed that the half-life of a Thoroughbred racing in California is just 12 months. Of a sample study of 3,150 horses, he said an average of 132 horses per month are taken out of training due to injuries.
Arthur said necropsy reports show that most of the horses sustain breakdowns "relatively early" after returning from lay-up and "90 percent of all fatalities show some evidence of prior stress fractures."
But, he added, given proper time to heal, that doesn't have to happen.
"Tiznow, Johar and Pleasantly Perfect all had diagnosed stress fractures prior to the year they won Breeders' Cup races," Arthur noted.
He said safety on California racetracks remains a "big issue" but synthetic tracks , such as that installed for the upcoming fall/winter meet at Hollywood Park, provide hope.
"(Synthetic) track is promising, when you look at the 20 fatalities at Turfway Park the preceding year compared to three last spring. There are concerns, frankly, how synthetic track will handle the heat at Santa Anita. But horses like it; they like to train over it. If you go out to Hollywood Park to watch them you can tell they like working on (Cushion Track)."
It has been a welcome relief to last fall and winter when Hollywood was suffering an average of one catastrophic breakdown a day, Arthur said.
On medication, he said he believes 80% of drug positives are the result of "inadvertent mistakes made at the barn" or ignorance of the rules. Arthur said he wants to develop and publish a manual containing withdrawal time data to help trainers understand the complicated system that governs the use of therapeutic medicine.
He said he will also push for more thresholds testing through blood because it is more accurate than urine analysis. And, he said there needs to be an increase in out-of-competition testing for blood doping – EPO and peptide hormones, for example.
Arthur said the CHRB will continue its vigilant pursuit of trainers who violate the 37-millimole limit for total carbon dioxide (TCO2), which he referred to as "bicarbonate loading." Arthur headed the committee that began the post-race testing in 2004 in cooperation with racetracks.
He said the problem has been nearly eliminated from Southern California, where there have been just two positive tests from 20,000 starters since September 2005. In the meantime, the University of California drug testing laboratory is compiling comprehensive data on trainers, paying particular attention to those who are close to exceeding the limit.
"Every trainer who has gone into the detention barn has had their horses drop in TCO2 levels," Arthur said, "and this includes the trainers who said they have no idea how the substance got into the horse's system."