12/16/2014 3:46PM

Racing commissioners' group asks medication group for merger

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The Association of Racing Commissioners International, an umbrella group for state racing commissions, has voted to ask an embattled independent medication research and advisory group to merge with it, the organization announced Tuesday.

The invitation, extended to the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, underlines the difficulties the racing industry is experiencing in forging a consensus behind some new medication rules and the process by which the rules are devised. The RMTC, which is funded by a broad spectrum of racing organizations and companies, was formed in 2003 to conduct and review scientific research on medications as part of a process to recommend the rules governing Thoroughbred racing.

A merger would mean isolating that function within the ARCI, which currently reviews the rules recommended by the RMTC to determine whether the regulations should be passed on to individual state racing commissions for adoption. The RMTC recommendations are formulated by a large board and scientific advisory group that includes representatives of nearly every racing constituency.

Dr. Dionne Benson, the executive director of the RMTC, said Tuesday that the executive committee of the RMTC will meet “shortly” to discuss the merger proposal. She declined to comment specifically on the proposal.

Criticism of the RMTC has mounted from some quarters of the racing industry in the past several years over its revisions of recommended withdrawal times and threshold levels for therapeutic medications, as well as the organization’s use of data that have not yet been circulated for public review as part of the rulemaking process.

RMTC officials have countered that the withdrawal times are difficult to set properly, and that revisions to the times are based on new science, making the standards moving targets. As for the use of unpublished data, the RMTC has said that the data in the studies are made available after they have been reviewed for publication in scientific journals.

Several years ago, objections from the harness-racing community to the RMTC’s work led the United States Trotting Association to withdraw from the organization. Since then, harness interests have worked to convince state racing commissions that several recommendations by the RMTC should be disregarded in the regulation of Standardbred racing, owing to differences in how Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds are trained and raced.

Ed Martin, the longtime president of the RCI, cited the withdrawal of the USTA and the unwillingness of some other racing constituents to work with the RMTC as one of the reasons that the merger should be considered. In a letter to the RMTC signed by the executive directors of 21 racing commissions, Martin said the defections have created a crisis of confidence in the RMTC’s work.

“In recent years, the credibility of the current RMTC process has been questioned,” the letter, which was provided by the RCI to racing publications, states. “In some quarters, confidence has eroded, even among some of the RMTC’s strongest historical supporters. This was compounded by the departure of the USTA and some science advisors deemed essential by key regulatory jurisdictions and others.”

In an interview Tuesday, Martin said he wanted his comments to be limited to the letter’s contents.

The letter states that the RCI could perform the same functions as the RMTC in devising medication policies, but it does not state why the RCI would be more successful in uniting the industry behind recommendations that are often some of the most controversial regulations in the sport, given the lack of consensus in the racing industry over many medication issues.

Even without a merger, the RCI said it is forming its own scientific advisory board to review scientific research forming the basis of the sport’s complex medication rules. John Ward, the executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and the current chairman of the RCI, said in a statement that the new board would “restructure the advisory process to make it stronger.”

Some of the criticism of the RMTC’s work on medication rules has been based on a belief that the group sometimes sacrifices scientific standards for the sake of combating public-perception problems. Those criticisms came to a head this summer with the RMTC’s initial recommendation for a threshold level for cobalt, a naturally occurring mineral that is believed to be in use by horsemen to act as a cheap blood doper. The RMTC withdrew the threshold shortly after releasing the recommendation.

Critics of the initial threshold have said that the limit was based only on a concentration that would be highly unlikely to occur in a horse without administering sizeable doses of the mineral, which can be toxic at extremely high concentrations, and not on levels that would indicate toxicity or the ability to enhance performance. At the time the RMTC released its initial recommendation, cobalt use had become a highly visible discussion item for critics of racing.

The RMTC has defended the threshold level, which has been adopted in only one state, but it is awaiting the results of more research before issuing a final recommendation.

The RCI letter hinted at the controversy over cobalt and other medication recommendations that have been targeted by some racetrack veterinarians as disrupting common veterinary practices that do not enhance racing performance.

“The recommendations from [the RCI’s new scientific advisory board] will be considered in conjunction with those of the RCI Equine Welfare and Regulatory Veterinarians Committees in determining how best to combat those who cheat while balancing humane and justified treatment regimens to ensure the health and safety of racing equines,” the letter states.

The National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which has a seat on the RMTC’s board of directors, released a statement late Tuesday praising the RCI for its merger proposal and the creation of the scientific advisory board. Several of the NHBPA’s advisers, notably Dr. Tom Tobin, have clashed with the RMTC in the past, and many of its rank-and-file members are resistant to stricter medication rules.

“All equine racing medication scientific research should be transparent, independently researched, peer reviewed, and publically available for analysis by the scientific community and interested industry participants, and the RCI’s action should facilitate this process,” said Robin Richards, the NHBPA’s president, in the statement.