by Frank Vespe

Last week, the Maryland Racing Commission took the next step in implementing Mid Atlantic Uniform Medication and Drug Testing program when it named Truesdail Laboratories to perform the analysis of urine and blood specimens taken from horses competing in Maryland.

The new regional program requires that Lasix be administered by a third party veterinarian chosen by the Racing Commission, prohibits other raceday medications including adjunct bleeder medications, limits allowed medications to a group of 24, and calls for drug tests to be performed by laboratories accredited by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Now, one more big step remains: the adoption of a multiple violations points system, similar to the point systems commonly employed by state departments of motor vehicles when drivers accrue moving violations.

[pullquote]“I haven’t heard anything negative.  Everyone’s been extremely cooperative.”Maryland Racing Commission Executive Director Mike Hopkins[/pullquote]

Six weeks into the new regional program — which got off to a rocky start — what’s perhaps most surprising is the seemingly high level of acceptance of the new rules among the racing community.

“I haven’t heard anything negative,” Maryland Racing Commission Executive Director Mike Hopkins said.  “Everyone’s been extremely cooperative.”

“I’ve heard no complaints — zero,” agreed state Racing Commission chairman Bruce Quade.

That Quade and Hopkins could make such statements with a straight face would, six weeks ago, have seemed unlikely.

Even before the implementation of the rules, some horsemen had begun to circulate petitions on the state’s backsides calling for the repeal of the Lasix rules and the rules governing adjunct medications.

By early January, concerns about whether rules regarding clenbuterol would be enforced had grown loud enough to force the Commission to issue a statement seeking to allay those concerns.  Saying that there was “misinformation” about the rule, Quade wrote, “So there is no misunderstanding, the Commission will enforce the new regulatory threshold for clenbuterol.”

In an interview, Quade summarized the statement the Commission issued: “These are the rules, you need to follow the rules, and we’re going to make sure you follow the rules.  There’s no mulligan here.”

Six weeks later, neither Quade nor Hopkins has seen the petition, trainers who had seen it while it was circulating don’t know what happened to it, and horsemen seem accepting of, if not entirely happy about, the new rules.

Frank Vespe, the founder of The Racing Biz, has owned, bought, sold, claimed, and written about horses, in varying combinations, for a decade.

Lasix rule going smoothly

The Lasix rule — which forbids private veterinarians from administering the anti-bleeder medication furosemide to horses on days on which those horses race and instead requires a Commission-appointed veterinarian to do so — caused significant angst prior to implementation.  Veterinarians warned that, without their day-to-day vets on hand, horses receiving the medication could be at risk.  Horsemen fretted that their horses might receive their Lasix too early to be effective, or not  at all.

To date, those concerns have not been borne out.

Racing Commission chairman Quade said, “I think that, from what I’ve heard, the Lasix rule seems to be going without a bump.”

Trainer Ferris Allen, who has sent out 13 starters at Laurel from his barn at the track, said of the Lasix rule, “That’s been no problem… It’s efficiently done.”

Trainer Linda Gaudet, a Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association board member who has started 11 horses at Laurel from her Bowie base, concurred.  The third-party administration of Lasix, she said, has gone “flawlessly, I believe.”

Concerns over medication restrictions

That’s not to say everyone is happy with everything. Prior to the imposition of the regulations, many horsemen expressed concern over the prohibition on adjunct bleeder medications.

Many — though by no means all — veterinarians and horsemen believe that adjunct bleeder medications, such as Aminocaproic acid (Amicar), enhance the effectiveness of Lasix in combating exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, or bleeding.  They claimed that the new rules would eliminate a safe and effective treatment and would, in essence, be cruel to the very horses the industry wants to protect.

Advocates of the new rules pointed out Maryland was one of only a handful of states that permitted adjunct medications and that those states that prohibited the medications had not seen an increase in the incidence of bleeding.

Allen, the trainer, is one of those who opposes the prohibition on the use of adjunct bleeder medications.  He said he believes that the problems caused by the ban, though not immediately apparent, will be “a matter of attrition over time.  It’s going to affect horses greatly.  Horses are going to be more likely to bleed under this program, and that’s going to hurt the economics of the industry.”

[pullquote]I don’t think [the new rules] force horsemen to change what they’re doing.”  Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association general counsel Alan Foreman.[/pullquote]

Similarly, the new rules requiring a 14-day withdrawal period from the bronchodilator clenbuterol have caused some confusion and complaints, Gaudet said.  That started even before the new rules came into effect, when some horsemen believed they were receiving mixed messages as to whether the rules applied or not.

Still, in general, the rules to date seem to have had a relatively small impact on barn functioning.  That, said Alan Foreman, general counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and one of the leaders in advocating for the regional rules, may be because rules-conscious horsemen were for the most part already in compliance on most matters.  “I don’t think [the new rules] force horsemen to change what they’re doing,” he said.

New lab represents important step

It may also be because, up to Saturday, the state had continued to use its non-accredited, Commission-run testing laboratory.  That lab, Hopkins, Foreman, and others said, was behind the times technologically and not able to test effectively for many commonly used drugs.  It would, Quade said, have cost the Commission millions of dollars to obtain the equipment required to bring the lab up to speed.

Among other benefits, the new laboratory will be able to test blood plasma.  The old lab largely was restricted to testing urine samples and, numerous sources have said, was unable to test at all for certain prohibited medications — a fact, many believe, widely known in the racing community.

“I’m curious — I guess I’m hopeful,” Jason Egan, a Bowie-based trainer and graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program, said of the new lab.  “Our testing procedures in the past were at best lax,” he added, “and at worst, embarrassing.”

He was far from alone in that assessment; other trainers, owners, and veterinarians have expressed concerns about the lab, pointing to its failure to catch those who seem to be cheating.

Allen expressed a view commonly held by many in the industry, that the new rules required a new lab to give them real teeth.

“I understand their reasoning by wanting to get the new rules underway the first of the year,” said Allen.  “But it’s unfortunate they didn’t have a lab in place at the same time.”

Horsemen and others cautious about penalty points system

Next up for the state will be the implementation of a multiple medication violations point system.

The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium has adopted a model rule for such a system, and the Racing Commission is expected to move to adopt a similar or identical rule over the coming year.  That, said Hopkins, will require “regulatory changes,” particularly since the rule will carry mandatory penalties for violations incurred in other states.  How exactly the points database will work, Hopkins said, figures to be a critical question.

“The big key component is being able to have a collaborative effort,” he noted.

Foreman said that the points system is “designed to address the habitual offender,” an aim that trainers mostly seemed to support.

“I don’t think the penalty system now works,” said Gaudet.  “I mean, what’s the ramification [of a violation]?  A two-week vacation?”

At the same time, she and others were cautious about the new system.  One area of concern is how to differentiate between trainers with large stables and those with smaller ones.

[pullquote]“When you have someone who has two or three Class 1 violations, they need to be out of the game.” — Trainer Linda Gaudet[/pullquote]

“It’s a very difficult thing to figure out how to treat a guy who runs 10 horses a year the same as you treat a guy who runs 600,” explained Allen.  “You don’t want to give a guy who runs 600 extra latitude because he runs a lot of horses, and you don’t want to give a guy who runs 10 horses one chance to do whatever he wants.”

At the same time, there’s a concern — expressed by many trainers over a period of months — that overzealous enforcement on medications could lead to overly harsh penalties on basically clean trainers.  Both Allen and Gaudet, for example, pointed to trainer Chris Grove’s situation — he was suspended six months and fined $5,000 for a Class 1 positive, the most serious offense, under the sport’s “absolute insurer” rule, although he was not present on the grounds when the offense occurred — as a cautionary tale.

“I think the Chris Grove situation scares everyone in the horse business,” said Allen.  “We all know Chris, and we all feel very comfortable that he was not involved in that, and yet he suffered greatly.”

He added, “As a trainer you have big worries that there’s a hunt out there to make examples of trainers for the wrong reasons.”

Gaudet concurred and underlined the difference among various potential situations: those such as Grove’s where all sides agree he was not present, those unintentional violations that can occur in even a well-run barn, and the more serious “cheaters.”

She added, “When you have someone who has two or three Class 1 violations, they need to be out of the game.”

Still, whether trainers are more cautious or more optimistic, change is coming.  And, while perhaps arguing about some of the particulars, most agree that that’s a good thing.

Quade, the Racing Commission chairman, called the lab the latest step in the Commission’s “ongoing efforts to provide for the safety of our human and equine athletes and to ensure the integrity of our sport.”

Added the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association’s Foreman, “It’s a huge step for the integrity of Maryland racing.”