Commonly Used Drug Now Under the Microscope

A discussion into the use and effectiveness of corticosteroids--therapeutic anti-inflammatory drugs--was full of twists and turns July 21 but inevitably settled on the areas of threshold levels, withdrawal times, and finally the question of whether a stringent policy for race-day medication is practical.

The panel met in Toronto, Ontario, during the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association summer convention. The National HBPA Medication Committee, led by Florida HBPA executive director Kent Stirling, repeatedly has said consistent thresholds levels and withdrawal times are critical to equine medication and drug testing policies.

Corticosteroids--chemical variants of natural steroids that can be rather potent--are tricky, panelists said, because they can linger in a horse's system for long periods of time, and could be just as effective if administered 24 hours before a race as they would be at four hours. But Dr. Michael Weaver of the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Association said the 24-hour rule has its place.

"Four hours is more costly to the industry perception-wise than 24 hours," Weaver said. "With 24 hours, the perception is at least (medication was administered) a day before the race."

Dr. Scot Waterman, executive director of the national Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, said the issue of corticosteroids, considered Class 4 therapeutic substances, "has bubbled to the surface." He said many jurisdictions hadn't tested for them, and when they started, there were no guidelines in place for horsemen and veterinarians who use them with regularity.

"If you're a trainer or a veterinarian, you be screaming at your racing commission to test for these drugs," Waterman said. "We've got to figure out what our national approach will be to them."

Florida allows use of one popular corticosteroid four hours before a race and intends to continue using it even though the consortium advocates use of only Salix and perhaps one adjunct bleeder medication on race day. Dr. Mary Scollay-Ward, a Florida veterinarian, said horses in South Florida traditionally have problems with the heat, and the anti-inflammatory drug has proven effective.

Scollay-Ward admitted her belief is based on her day-to-day observations, not science. Waterman said decisions as to the use of various drugs should be based on science, not anecdotal evidence.

Ohio HBPA president Gus George questioned panelists as to the accuracy of drug testing, threshold levels, and withdrawal times. He painted a picture of horsemen who get tangled up in a process that has taken precedence over more pressing issues, such making a living on a daily basis.

"Beulah Park has 1,200 horses and one veterinarian," George said. "We have results coming back now from tests taken in March. (If there is a positive), do you know what that does to a horseman who already has spent that purse money?

" If I have a horse who in his prime runs six furlongs in 1:11, I don't give a damn how much non-steroidal medication I give him--he's not going to run the six furlongs in 1:09. We ought to be looking at the things that are really, really important in this game."

Weaver said there are two accredited equine drug-testing labs in Canada that test about 54,000 samples in a year. He agreed on the need for standards, but he contended they could be carried to an extreme to the detriment of the industry.

"We need standards, but we've quality-assured some of these people to death," he said. "We've cut back. Our chemists have to do the day-to-day work."