The complicated nature of regulating anabolic steroids in racehorses came to light May 20 when discussion among members of the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council and others seemed to indicate the easiest route is an all-out ban on the substances.
Or is it?
“This is a complicated subject,” said Dr. David Nash, executive director of the Equine Drug Research Institute headed by Dr. Don Catlin.
Nash offered his insight to the drug council, which is charged with making recommendations to the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority. The drug council formed a subcommittee to study regulation of steroids, but outside of that, had many more questions than answers.
“I feel that right now, too many people are half-informed or misinformed, and I put myself in that group,” drug council chair Connie Whitfield said. “I sense that right now we’re operating under different assumptions. If Kentucky does make a decision to regulate or ban (steroids), we need to be able to explain why we took that certain position.”
The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, a group of about 25 industry stakeholders, has suggested all racing jurisdictions adopt a model rule to regulate four anabolic steroids by Jan. 1, 2009. Thus far, three states have adopted the rule, and others are moving the process along.
The RMTC, which has no regulatory authority, wrote the model rule in conjunction with the Association of Racing Commissioners International. It spells out cut-off times for use of the four steroids, which have valid therapeutic purposes.
With a 30- to 45-day cut-off before a race, the steroids would effectively be banned for use on race day. But the Federal Drug Administration-approved substances—stanozolol (Winstrol), boldenone (Equipoise), nandralone (Durabolin), and testosterone—wouldn’t technically be banned, just regulated.
There are complicating factors. Three of the steroids can occur naturally in intact male horses, making testing more difficult. A debate lingers over whether the drugs should be tested for in urine or blood. And there are about 70 other steroids for which there currently are no tests, leading to speculation some horsemen may just use some of those in racehorses.
“We’re left shaking our heads, saying, ‘What are the facts?’ ” Whitfield said. “We have Dr. Catlin’s opinion versus other arguments. Why regulate four steroids and not 10? There are some basic facts I’d like to see some agreement on.”
Catlin, a specialist in human drug testing, earlier this year told attendees at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit that use of anabolic steroids in racehorses should be banned given the complications of regulation.
“Dr. Catlin is specifically concerned there’s not that much published data in the United States on the testing method (the racing industry) is looking at employing,” Nash said. “Dr. Catlin’s fear is that we may be pushing the regulations faster that the labs have the ability to perform analyses and defend the results if there is a legal challenge.”
Trainer John Ward, a member of the drug council and RMTC, said the “science is fast moving” in the area of steroids. He said the current situation in horse racing—putting horses on steroid regimens—has to change.
“The consensus would be there will be change in the state of Kentucky, and the state wants to change effectively to mirror the best procedures we can, but the science is still gray,” Ward said. “When we do it, we have to do it right the first time.”
Trainer Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and a drug council member, said in 30 years, he has given five injections of steroids on the advice of veterinarians for treatment of horses.
"I don't believe in them," Hiles said. "That being said, I don't think there is a policy you can set until they get the plasma level set (for testing)."
The RMTC has pushed completion of research into anabolic steroids back to September, which creates an even smaller window. The research deals with testing in plasma.
The push for steroids regulation has been influenced by concerns about public perception and possible intervention on the part of the federal government. The breakdown and subsequent death of the filly Eight Belles after the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) triggered attacks on the racing industry even though a necropsy showed the filly wasn’t on steroids or any banned substances.
Republican Kentucky Sen. Damon Thayer, a member of the drug council, said public perception figures large in the equation because many members of the non-trade media don’t understand equine drug testing and regulation. He also noted time is running short on the RMTC recommendation for adoption of regulations nationally.
“I know one thing—we had better move fast on regulation,” Thayer said. “We have a small window of opportunity. I don’t think the public will be very patient with us on this. I might be in favor of banning (steroids) all together.”
Thayer noted any regulations adopted by the KHRA must be approved by the state legislature. That process takes time. He noted, however, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has the right to issue an emergency regulation if the need arises before the legislature acts.
“This could be an area where the governor could be persuaded,” Thayer said. “I don’t know, because I don’t know him very well.”
Thayer said given the fallout from this year’s Derby, he hopes the regulations are in place in time for the 2009 event at Churchill Downs.
Members of the drug council subcommittee will be announced the week of May 18, Whitfield said. At Ward’s suggestion, the subcommittee will look at ways drug council funds can be used for research into testing for anabolic steroids.
According to the RMTC, 10 states have adopted the rule, including Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington, Iowa, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Arizona, Colorado, and Virginia. Iowa has been regulating steroids via urine testing for more than 10 years.