Updated on 09/15/2011 2:34PM

Threshold split threatens national medication policy


TUCSON, Ariz. - The effort to arrive at a uniform medication policy in the United States is being jeopardized by a widening schism between supporters and opponents of threshold levels, drug-testing officials and horse racing regulators said Tuesday morning after a medication panel here.

The split was expected to significantly color a closed-door session on Tuesday afternoon that was called by the American Association of Equine Practitioners to reach an industry-wide consensus on a national medication policy, just one day before the annual University of Arizona Symposium on racing was officially scheduled to start. The AAEP invited 31 industry officials to the afternoon session, which was expected to last until early Tuesday evening. Members of the press were not allowed to attend the session.

Before the afternoon discussion, several attendees complained that a morning panel to set the stage for the afternoon discussion had checked momentum that is building within the industry to arrive at a medication consensus. The panel featured veterinarians, chemists, and researchers who discussed controversial medications such as the diuretic furosemide, known as Lasix, and the bronchodilator clenbuterol. The panel also included an informational presentation on drug-testing procedures.

One high-ranking attendee, who declined to be identified because he was invited to the afternoon session, bluntly characterized the panel's content as "propaganda" and said it would impact the discussions scheduled later on Tuesday.

"I think it was pretty obvious what they were trying to do, which is build support for threshold levels," the official said. "And I know a lot of regulators who are not going to let this get shoved down our throats."

Threshold levels, which are sometimes called "decision levels" or "regulatory limits," would loosen medication regulations in many states by allowing small amounts of some performance-enhancing drugs to appear in post-race urine and blood samples. The levels are set at a limit that is believed to have no pharmacologically significant effect on a horse.

The controversy over threshold levels illustrates an ingrained split between the groups that determine medication policy in the U.S. On one side, regulatory hawks decry the influence of veterinarians, complaining vets have much to profit from liberalized medication rules. On the other side, veterinarians and their supporters complain that efforts to marginalize the veterinary lobby will render drug-testing policies inhumane and impractical.

Most notably, the debate over threshold levels is pitting two national horsemen's associations, the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, against each other. Over the past two months, both groups have released reports advocating slightly different recommendations for a national medication policy, and where the reports most significantly diverge is on threshold levels.

The NHBPA, which released its report in October, said its 33 member jurisdictions would support threshold levels for 12 drugs, including the bronchodilator clenbuterol and acepromazine, a tranquilizer. The policy is also supported by the AAEP.

The THA, conversely, adopted recommendations that said threshold levels for the vast majority of drugs could not be supported by current scientific methods. In a report it released just a week before the medication summit, the THA said it would oppose threshold levels until the use of Lasix is subjected to much stricter regulations. Lasix is believed to dilute post-race urine samples, leading to lower concentrations of other drugs in the sample.

The effect that the threshold-level debate would have on the consensus effort was not clear Tuesday afternoon because the session had not yet recessed, but Kent Stirling, the president of the Florida HBPA, said before the session that, despite the controversy, some progress would be made.

"I don't know that we can agree," Stirling said. "But the fact that we are in that room together is a giant step forward. This hasn't ever happened before."

Richard Mandella, the Hall of Fame trainer, said that both sides of the debate were going to have to make concessions if regulators wanted to reach a decision on a nationwide policy.

"You are going to have to have balance," said Mandella. "Don't try to please everybody and don't think that every answer is going to be right for everyone."

One of the speakers at the morning session, Dr. Cynthia Kollias-Baker of the University of California at Davis, addressed clenbuterol. She said that three myths about the drug - that it enhances a horse's performance, that administrations into the trachea could not be detected, and that the finding of clenbuterol indicates an attempt to cheat - could not be supported by research. "There are a lot of misperceptions and a lot of misunderstandings out there," Kollias-Baker said.

Should racing adopt a national medication policy? Or should states continue to set their own medication policies?