08/11/2009 9:25PM

Strange Fruit


Once in awhile two stories collide and the sparks of irony fly. It happened last week.

First, the Thoroughbred welfare air was abuzz with the news that government food regulators of the European Union and Canada have adopted more stringent rules for horsemeat that comes from U.S. sources. Seems it finally dawned on our horse-consuming cousins that performance horses from the States tend to be chock full o' chemical residue. There are no free-range Thoroughbreds, or at least none that end up in livestock trailers bound for slaughter in Canada and Mexico, and eventually for sale on overseas counters. The regulations due to go into effect next spring would require a horse to be accompanied by a medical history, or spend six months in quarantine before they could be slaughtered. You can read about it on Willie Nelson's Peace Research Institute website -- http://willienelsonpri.com/ -- which is where I get all my serious news anyway, from the Red-Headed Stranger.


"Part of the problem with horse medication is that information on withdrawal times is not generally available for horses in North America because they are not considered food animals," writes Calgary journalist Barbara Duckworth in the Canadian agriculture journal The Western Producer.

Hopefully, the economy will turn around before horses do become a new American food crop, to be "harvested" in the same manner as cattle, pigs and poultry. This is nothing against meat, mind you. It's just that Americans of good conscience have this deal going with horses that says as long as they work hard and play hard we won't slaughter and eat them, and that if they are born and raised in this country they deserve our protection from people who want to slaughter and eat them somewhere else. The same courtesy is extended to dogs.

Then along comes this other headline, that the Racing Commissioners International is galloping headlong toward adopting a position in support of changing the pre-race administration deadline for non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like Bute and Banamine to 48 or even 72 hours from the current 24.

If a horse is entered to race on Saturday, he can get his Bute as late as Friday afternoon. By the time the examining vet comes around Saturday morning, in most cases the Bute is still having its desired analgesic effect. An RCI subcommittee of regulatory veterinarians recognizes the possibility that the medication can mask an incipient unsoundness that cannot be revealed during a routine palpation and stable road trot.


"There is a lot more pressure on examining veterinarians today than there's ever been, to make sure these racehorses are sound," said Dr. Rick Arthur, the Equine Medical Director of the California Horse Racing Board. "It is a concern they've had for several years that they're just starting to express now. If non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are interfering with the ability of the examining veterinarians to perform effective examinations, then we need to re-evaulate what we're doing."

Arthur said he underwent an attitude shift on the subject in the wake of the intensified pre-race examinations of Breeders' Cup runners last October, when the event was staged at Santa Anita.

"We looked at some of those horses every day for four, five, even eight days in advance of the races," Arthur said. "There were a number that we were concerned with. Then lo and behold, on race day those horses looked pretty good, all except one, who was scratched. They ran well, and there were no problems, but all those horses looked better the day they ran than the day before. Is that good or bad? I think that's the issue."

The opposition to changes in pre-race medication rules has already made itself known. Arthur, a former practicing racetrack vet, is hearing from his colleagues as well as from trainers, while national horsemen's groups are urging the RCI to hold its water until scientific studies can be completed.

"Nobody is really happy with tackling this issue, because I think everybody understands it's going to be a very contentious one," Arthur added. "But we want to come up with what's fair, and by that I mean what's fair for the horse and for the rider."

Arthur is right. Such changes will come hard. And there even can be unintended consequences, especially if the tasty American Thoroughbred becomes increasingly drug free.