04/18/2014 3:20PM

Racing industry mulls logistics of ontrack pharmacies

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Barbara D. Livingston
Frank Stronach, who owns Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Golden Gate Fields, Laurel, and Pimlico, among other racing assets, released a statement on Wednesday listing 10 policies his tracks will seek to implement as house rules under the broad heading of “medication reform.”

LEXINGTON, Ky. – On the list of policies released Wednesday that Frank Stronach says he will implement at his tracks, the most intriguing – and most controversial – is the notion of creating ontrack pharmacies that will be responsible for buying and dispensing every dose of medication administered to every horse on racetrack grounds.

Some supporters heartily embrace the idea, saying that an ontrack dispensary will bring an end to a practice that many critics of veterinary medicine refer to as “injecting the shed row” – administering a panoply of medications to all of the horses in a trainer’s barn without even inspecting the horse. The supporters also contend that a pharmacy will make it harder for veterinarians and trainers to keep and administer illegal drugs on the racetrack, since any medical substance in a barn or vet truck that wasn’t dispensed by the pharmacy will be prohibited.

While few in racing overtly dismiss the concept, many veterinarians and racing officials said they cannot support the concept without answers to a vast number of questions.

“I’m not sure how one would work, to be honest,” said Dr. Foster Northrup, a Kentucky racetrack veterinarian who is a member of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. “I’m not trying to shoot this thing in the foot, but I see a lot of problems, and I have a lot of questions.”

Stronach, who owns Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Golden Gate Fields, Laurel, and Pimlico, among other racing assets, released a statement on Wednesday listing 10 policies his tracks will seek to implement as house rules under the broad heading of “medication reform.” The ontrack pharmacy concept was followed by a rule “prohibiting anyone from having any medications in their possession unless those medications have been properly prescribed for a therapeutic treatment program,” a standard for care and possession that is far more strict than the one currently applied to racetrack veterinary practice in the U.S.

Supporters of an ontrack pharmacy point to Hong Kong, where all medications administered to racehorses require a prescription from a pharmacy owned by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which regulates every aspect of racing and training in the province.

But racing in Hong Kong is also different in hugely significant ways from U.S. racing. Most importantly, Hong Kong’s two tracks hold approximately 750 races a year for 1,500 horses. With such a small number of races for such a relatively large population of horses, the Hong Kong Jockey Club can afford to require horses to meet the most stringent physical standards before running.

In addition, the Hong Kong horse population is captive – all horses race and train at Hong Kong Jockey Club facilities. In the U.S., horses ship in from myriad locations on race day, so under the proposed Stronach rules, there would be two standards for care – a veterinarian treating a horse offtrack will not be constrained by the racetrack rule that limits the care a veterinarian can provide to a horse stabled at a Stronach track.

Nevertheless, supporters of an ontrack pharmacy are convinced the idea has benefits. Most importantly, they say, veterinarians will find it much more difficult to administer medications of dubious benefit to a horse on their own say-so, the kind of treatments that run up a vet bill even if they aren’t listed on the bill by name (or the correct date). Many say there is a backstretch culture where some trainers seem to be experimenting on race day with compounded substances that have absolutely no active, illegal, or even helpful ingredients.

Under the Stronach rules, those compounded substances couldn’t be prescribed, so a search of a barn or truck that turned up any unauthorized substance would result in an immediate penalty. To issue a penalty under existing rules for those types of substances – which won’t test positive – the veterinarian or trainer usually has to be caught in the act of administering the substance, which requires an especially alert or lucky backstretch security staff.

Also, supporters contend that an ontrack pharmacy would lead to a significant reduction in the routine medicating of horses without an accompanying diagnosis. For example, in the past two years reports have surfaced that all or most of the horses in the barns of Bob Baffert and Steve Asmussen, two leading trainers, were at one time receiving regular doses of the drug thyrozine, which is supposed to treat extremely rare thyroid conditions.

Dr. Jeff Blea, a California racetrack practitioner who was part of a group that studied the creation of an ontrack pharmacy in the state several years ago, said he remains open-minded about an ontrack pharmacy despite questions about the logistics. In large part, he said, if vets had to justify their prescriptions through a controlled pharmacy, they’d cut out a lot of the automatic yet extraneous treatments.

“You’d probably get a lot more hands and eyes on a horse before a vet writes a prescription, and that’s a very good thing,” said Blea.

But Blea, like other vets, also believes he will need to see a detailed plan about how the pharmacies will work before he can back them. Will the pharmacies be open 24-7, so that veterinarians can get access to emergency medications at any time of the day or night? Who will own the pharmacy, and what will prevent the owner from price gouging? Will veterinarians be prevented from carrying around the sometimes powerful medications that can be necessary to administer on a moment’s notice to horses that have colicked or suffered a catastrophic injury?

“As a vet, you have to be prepared,” Northrup said. “Horses get hurt fast. Horses get sick fast. Horses colic fast. And they can die pretty fast.”

For now, Stronach racetrack officials do not have answers to those questions. They plan to hire an equine health and safety director to devise how the policies will be implemented, in consultation with a committee of owners, trainers, and veterinarians. That process will likely take months, and in the meantime, the racing industry will be watching closely to see how the idea develops.