Approaching the Gate

By Dr. C. Wayne McIlwraith

For many years, racehorse medication has been a major topic within the horse racing industry. In recent years, the topic has become even hotter. There have been exaggerations, generalizations, and sometimes painful truths in the media. Recently, I was asked to speak at the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities in Paris and early in the program someone enunciated that "we need global uniformity in medication." How about starting with uniformity in the United States?

Racehorse medication is a multi-faceted issue, and the lack of uniformity in the administration, testing, security, and enforcement of medication rules compounds the complexity. Each state establishes its own guidelines. Withdrawal times, decision levels, and the severity of administrative action differ among the 34 racing jurisdictions throughout the U.S. What may be an acceptable threshold level in one state may be a violation elsewhere.

Although standards vary, the outcome of a positive call often is the same--questions concerning the care of the equine athlete and a lack of confidence in racing's integrity. Horse racing is one of the most heavily regulated sports in North America. It is also one of the cleanest. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Racing Integrity and Drug Testing Task Force report presented at The Jockey Club Round Table in August supports those claims. Most positive calls result from overages of therapeutic medications, not from the use of illegal drugs. We still have a lot to do.

Medication usage affects every professional affiliated with racing; veterinarians cannot address the issue alone. In October of 2000, the American Association of Equine Practitioners updated its racehorse policy and proposed an industry-wide effort to unify racing's medication rules. We had two objectives in revising our policy: protecting the health and welfare of the horse, and ensuring the integrity of racing. Since then, the AAEP has met with major racing associations to discuss establishing uniformity and clarity in medication administration rules.

In addition to the NTRA's initiative, various groups have invested tremendous effort individually to address racehorse medication issues. Unfortunately, consensus has eluded us. Achieving a workable solution will take time, perseverance, and the input of the entire industry.

The fact the medication issue has not been resolved should not be surprising. During my tenure as the AAEP president, there has been debate among our membership. The veterinary community--including my wife, Dr. Nancy Goodman, who practiced 19 years on the racetrack--has expressed a wide range of viewpoints to me. Despite differing opinions, there has been much commonality, particularly regarding uniformity, the need to define pharmacologically insignificant levels, and environmental contaminants. Now is the time to establish uniformity, based on standards that promote the horse and the integrity of racing.

On Dec. 4, the AAEP will convene a Racehorse Medication Summit preceding the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing. The Summit presents an opportunity for the industry to identify areas of agreement, address issues of concern, and, for the first time, move forward as a collective group. A broad spectrum of organizations from throughout the Thoroughbred, Standardbred, and Quarter Horse industries will participate in the day-long discussion on the standards and policies the industry should follow. If we can achieve consensus on the principles, we can then give individuals with expertise a mandate to define the rules.

The Medication Summit offers a good first step, moving racing's stakeholders--owners, regulators, track representatives, trainers, and veterinarians--to the starting gate of a challenging race. The next leg will be to take the suggestions from the Summit, develop clear formal positions, and work to have them implemented throughout every jurisdiction. This will require continued follow-through and support on the part of the entire industry.

The industry wants horse racing to increase in popularity and achieve the status of a major league sport. The time is right for us all to come together and reach consensus. By agreeing to meet as one group, the industry has taken a great stride forward, moving the discussion out of the stable to ensure the well-being of the athletes on the track.

DR. C. WAYNE McILWRAITH is president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.