08/02/2012 12:58PM

Enforcing drug penalties may need help from outside agencies

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A proposal to crack down on cheating in racing would refer some drug violations to law-enforcement agencies and subject veterinarians to sanctions by state licensing boards, though the effort may face significant hurdles as the rules are discussed further.

The effort is being guided by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, an umbrella group for racing commissions that has begun making the case that the sanctioning powers of its member states are too limited. The proposals to involve law-enforcement agencies and state veterinary boards in cases involving violations of racing’s drug rules grew out of a recent meeting in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The proposals, which could be ready for adoption by the end of the year, would stake out new ground in the regulation of racing. Currently, most state racing commissions issue penalties to trainers based on guidelines developed by the RCI that, depending on the drug involved, can range from a minor fine to license revocation. The new proposal would recommend the evidence for some violations be handed over to local police or district attorneys under the allegation the violations constitute animal abuse, a maneuver that has little precedent in racing.

The proposal to refer cases to state licensing boards represents the latest effort to subject veterinarians to penalties, a big change from a long-standing regulatory policy to hold the trainer solely responsible for a horse’s condition. Under that policy, the role of a veterinarian in a drug violation is rarely scrutinized or investigated, even in cases where the violation was likely the result of a veterinarian procuring and administering an illegal substance.

Both proposals have yet to move beyond the conceptual stage. However, Dr. Corrine Sweeney, the chair of the Pennsylvania Racing Commission, an RCI member, will attend the annual meeting of the American Association of State Veterinary Boards in September to ask the organization to consider reviewing the licenses of veterinarians implicated in drug violations, and the RCI’s Regulatory Veterinary Committee has been asked to develop a list of drugs and practices that state racing commissions should consider “abusive” for the purposes of pursuing criminal charges.

So far, the proposals enjoy wide support, in large part because they seem to address the complaints of critics who have contended that racing does not adequately punish wrongdoers and serial cheaters.

“There are veterinarians who are being squeezed by trainers, and in some cases, owners, indirectly, to treat a horse that shouldn’t be running,” said Ed Martin, the executive director of the RCI. “This might give them a reason to say, ‘Wait, no, I’m not doing that.’ It’s one thing to lose your racing license. It’s a whole other thing to lose your license to practice.”

The proposal to refer veterinarians to licensing boards could be deployed in multiple ways, according to officials. In cases of a specific drug violation, racing commissions could ask the boards to sanction the veterinarian for conduct that violates statutes prohibiting fraudulent and deceptive practices. Evidence of a pattern of mistreatment of animals could be presented if a veterinarian’s records reveal the prescription of excessive amounts of therapeutic medications when a horse has not displayed symptoms of underlying problems.

That prospect is sure to give some veterinarians pause. Racetrack veterinarians are not accustomed to having their practices questioned, but supporters of the proposals are hoping to avert accusations of meddling by having the veterinary boards rule on the propriety of treatments, rather than relying on the judgment of individuals on racing commissions who may or may not have expertise in the practice of veterinary medicine, officials said.

A regulatory veterinarian who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the RCI’s proposal to refer cases to licensing boards “is a bit of posturing.” The veterinarian said most members of state licensing boards are not familiar with racetrack veterinary practices, and that veterinarians over the next several months are likely to push for the creation of veterinary review panels at racing commissions that would adjudicate penalties against veterinarians. The panels would ideally include retired vets and trainers, the veterinarian said.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners, a trade group, would not comment directly on the proposal to refer veterinarians to licensing boards. However, the association’s president, John Mitchell, said the AAEP is “very interested in any RCI proposals that will enhance the uniform regulation of horse racing throughout America.”

“We look forward to evaluating the new concept when the specific proposal is released and hope it will strengthen practices that protect the health and welfare of racehorses,” Mitchell wrote.

The most high-profile case of a veterinarian being sanctioned involved Dr. Rod Stewart, an equine practitioner who was suspended for five years by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission in 2008 after a search conducted at Keeneland. During the search, which included Stewart’s truck, investigators discovered several vials of cobra venom, a potent painkiller that is illegal to use in racing.

But Stewart’s suspension was the exception, not the rule. Earlier this year, regulators in New York issued an indefinite suspension to a harness trainer, Lou Pena, after a review of veterinary records turned up an alleged 1,719 violations of racing rules. The regulators’ case rests entirely on the vet records, yet the veterinarian has not been sanctioned.

State veterinary boards currently have broad powers to suspend or revoke a veterinarian’s license. Statutes in Kentucky, for example, give the state veterinary board the power to discipline veterinarians for “any act of dishonesty or corruption” and committing any “unfair, false, misleading, or deceptive act or practice,” among other reasons. Those statutes could easily be cited if a veterinarian knowingly administered a drug to a horse that is in racing’s Class A category, a group that includes medications that have no therapeutic benefit to a horse and that have a high potential to influence the horse’s performance.

The pursuit of animal-cruelty charges against trainers with drug violations is more complicated. First, state racing commissions would need to determine what pharmacological substances or veterinary practices rise to a criminal level of abuse. Second, they would need to convince police or district attorneys to press charges and devote time and resources to prosecuting the case. As a result, commissions would need to be circumspect in passing a case up to law-enforcement officials, Martin said.

“We need to keep this in perspective,” Martin said. “It’s really the most egregious offenses we’re talking about here,” such as the use of blood-enhancing drugs like EPO.

In California, regulators can seek criminal charges against a veterinarian through the state veterinary board, according to Sandra Monterrubio, the enforcement program manager for the California Medical Veterinary Board. Under the state’s code, the board can levy fines and suspend and revoke licenses. The board can also forward its findings to the state’s attorney general, Monterrubio said, if the charges are considered a gross violation of the state’s business and professional code.

Even if the proposals are not adopted, the RCI’s effort makes it clear regulators are going to ratchet up the pressure on trainers and veterinarians to run clean operations. Simultaneous to the RCI effort, the Jockey Club is pressing state racing commissions to adopt new rules that would in some cases provide for harsher penalties for drug violations. Many organizations continue to push for a ban on the raceday use of furosemide.

“We’re in the process of completely rethinking the big picture,” Martin said. “We’re trying to bring all the tools at our disposal together to plug some of the holes that we know exist.”