02/27/2014 6:08PM

Equine Safety Committee concerned about 'stacking' of legal medications


The simultaneous use of multiple therapeutic medications to treat the same ailment - a method referred to as stacking - has caused some concern among members of the New York racing community.

The issue was brought up Thursday during a phone-in only meeting of the New York Racing Association’s Equine Safety Committee. Stacking involves giving horses such medications as Phenylbutazone, Flunixin, and Ketoprofen - all non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) - to treat pain. While these therapeutic medications are permitted to be given within a certain time frame from a race, the administration of all three medications at once can be harmful to a horse’s gastrointestinal system and make lameness difficult to detect, according to Dr. Scott Palmer, the recently appointed state’s Equine Medical Director.

“There is a significant potential for harm giving multiple NSAIDs within the same therapeutic window,” Palmer said in an interview following the meeting. “The use of multiple NSAIDs leading up to an athletic event, to some degree, it’s a great idea. If you overdo it, it can be problematic. One of the problems is use of a lot of these medications will mask clinical signs of lameness, which makes it more difficult for the examining vet to detect things.

“We’re asking vets to identify pre-existing conditions which could lead to fatal injures which is a very difficult thing to do under the best of circumstances,” Palmer added.

Both Palmer and Anthony Bonomo, a horse owner and chair of the Safety Committee, said NYRA’s chief examining veterinarian Dr. Anthony Verderosa, has brought up the issue of stacking as a potential problem.

“If legal substances are given in a way that can hurt horses then we have an obligation to stop that too,” Bonomo said. “If it’s true that stacking is bad we should do something to stop it.”

While stacking involves the use of legal medications, one board member, Barry Ostrager, said he believes that NYRA still has a perception issue regarding the use of illegal medications.

“There are only about 13 people who follow New York racing who don’t believe that the use of performance-enhancing drugs at NYRA tracks is rampant,” Ostrager said toward the end of the meeting.

Asked after the meeting to clarify his remarks, Ostrager said that it is important for NYRA to combat those perceptions.

“To the extent that there are people who are concerned about it, it’s important for us to make it clear to the public we’re doing everything and anything possible to ensure that there’s no issue,” Ostrager said by phone from Los Angeles. “The reality is whenever a particular trainer does well people assume the trainer’s taking an edge. It’s the job of NYRA make the public confident NYRA is zealously protecting the integrity of the sport.”

In response to Ostrager’s initial comment, Palmer said, “There are very few medications that are performance-enhancing. It’s easier to slow a horse down than to speed one up.”
Palmer said the best methods of detecting the use of illegal drugs are through CO2 testing and the use of out-of-competition testing.

Bonomo has expressed a desire for NYRA to develop house rules to punish trainers who violate the rules, but it remains unclear what, if any, rules NYRA can establish outside the purview of the state.

NYRA does plan to increase training of investigators who are assigned to horse-watch detail.

Last year, NYRA established hotlines for horsemen or any backstretch worker to call in anonymously regarding concerns about potential misconduct. While those hotlines have been sparsely used, Palmer said that a few horsemen have reached out to him to express concerns about potential illegal activity.

“I’ve only been on the job for a month and I have had three phone calls or meetings with trainers where they wanted to share concerns over violations,” Palmer said. “There is activity outside the hotline from people who want to do the right thing when they believe some of their brethren aren’t exactly following the rules.”

On the issue of breakdowns, Glen Kozak, NYRA’s vice president facilities and racing surfaces, reported there have been three racing-related fatalities from 2,037 starts since Jan. 1 this year at Aqueduct. Last year, according to Kozak, there were six racing-related fatalities from Jan. 1 through March 23.

“We are still tracking consistent with where we are last year on having a good season,” Kozak said.

While necropsies are being performed on all racing-related fatalities, members of the safety committee plan to propose to the full NYRA board that necropsies be performed on fatalities that occur during training as well. There have been five training fatalities that have occurred at Belmont since Jan. 1.