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Is your horse steroid-free?
The Breeders' Cup and California Horse Racing Board have urged horsemen to take advantage of a prerace testing program for anabolic steroids as part of a wide-ranging effort to avoid the kind of public scrutiny that has dogged the racing industry since the death of the filly Eight Belles after her second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.
Eight Belles did not race on anabolic steroids, but her death led to widespread criticism of the sport's largely unsupervised use of the drugs and accelerated state efforts to bring steroids under regulation. In part, those criticisms were founded on the admission during the Triple Crown by trainer Rick Dutrow that Big Brown, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, was regularly administered an anabolic steroid - a common practice among many trainers who had legally used the drugs to maintain a horse's appetite and weight.
This year's Breeders' Cup on Oct. 24-25 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., will be the first one in a state that regulates anabolic steroids. In addition, policies put in place by the Breeders' Cup in August will ban a trainer from the Breeders' Cup for one year if a horse tests positive at the event.
Although the new regulations appear to address the use of drugs that created the public outcry, they are also leading to concerns from some regulators that unscrupulous horsemen will be on the lookout for other powerful muscle-building drugs that are capable of evading detection.
For now, the Breeders' Cup is publicizing its current efforts: random out-of-competition testing for blood-doping drugs, prerace blood sampling to test for illegal milkshakes, screening for more than 130 drugs, and an aggressive public-relations program to make trainers aware of the new rules. In all, the combined efforts present a get-tough image on banned drug use with new rules that harshly punish violators.
"Am I worried that someone has had their heads in the sand for the last several months? Of course I am," said Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board. "But anyone who is not aware that steroids are illegal in California has to be functionally brain-dead and shouldn't be involved in the sport."
California was the first major horse racing jurisdiction to enact steroid regulations. The rules, which began to be enforced fully on Sept. 4, prohibit the administration of anabolic steroids within 30 days of a race by establishing threshold limits on the four drugs - boldenone, nandrolone, stanozolol, and testosterone - that have been approved for use in horses by the FDA. The rule bans all other anabolics.
The prerace testing program is intended to address any question that a positive test for an anabolic steroid could result from a therapeutic administration of the drug more than 30 days before the races, according to Pamela Blatz-Murff, the Breeders' Cup's director of racing and nominations. Under the policy, a trainer can contact the Breeders' Cup team of regulatory veterinarians to request that a horse be tested anytime before final entries on Oct. 21. If the horse tests positive, no penalty will be issued, but the horse will be unable to compete.
"We will make sure that if there are any questions on any horses that the trainers have a sample pulled and pre-tested," Blatz-Murff said.
Aside from California, 15 other states have adopted rules regulating steroids, and another 16 are in the process, according to officials of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, an industry group that began developing a model rule to regulate the drugs three years ago. While many supporters of the regulations cite the need for racing to police itself, the effort also has a strong political component tied to the controversies surrounding the use of banned body-building chemicals in other major sports.
Anabolic steroids can be used therapeutically under FDA guidelines to enable a horse to recover from exercise more quickly or to restore a finicky horse's appetite. They can also be used to build muscle mass, but to get that effect in a horse - or a person - the drugs have to be administered frequently. Many horsemen have said that they administered the drugs on a once-a-month schedule. A CHRB survey indicated that 60 percent of horses in California received a regular injection before the new rules.
In states where steroids have been regulated for a month or more, some trainers and veterinarians contend that fears of steroid abuse were overblown. In fact, many of them said that they have noticed little to no impact on the health of horses withdrawing from the drugs.
Dutrow had previously said that Big Brown received a regular dose of stanozolol, the most commonly used steroid in racing. But Dutrow took Big Brown off steroids in the midst of the Triple Crown, and after the horse mysteriously faltered in the Belmont Stakes, the 3-year-old has rebounded to win two stakes.
Dutrow said last week that he hasn't seen any impact, positive or negative, from the removal of steroids from any horse under his care, including Big Brown. But Dutrow also contended that steroids did little or nothing for his horses when he was administering the drugs.
"I haven't seen any difference," Dutrow said. "I can't tell you what the effect is because there isn't any."
Jeff Blea, a racetrack veterinarian in Southern California, said he has seen some horses withdrawing from steroids suffer from minor weight loss and lack of energy, but that those horses have quickly recovered.
"They talk about the steroid blues, a horse that comes off steroids and gets a little quiet or lethargic," Blea said. "We've seen a little bit of that. But after a couple of days, the horses bounce back, and they don't really miss a step. For those horses, trainers have had to make some adjustments, as far as feed and training, but that's it."
Foster Northrup, a racetrack veterinarian at Churchill Downs in Kentucky and a member of the state's Equine Drug Council, echoed Blea's comments, as did other veterinarians.
"I don't notice much difference, and I kind of knew I wouldn't," Northrup said. "The whole steroid debate was overrated. It was kind of a crutch for a lot of people, but it was an overrated crutch. I'm not surprised that horses aren't falling apart."
Racing regulators, meanwhile, said they are on the lookout for banned alternatives that would have similar body-building effects as anabolic steroids. One obvious candidate is clenbuterol, the bronchial dilator that is used in cattle for its steroidal effects. Clenbuterol is an illegal race-day medication in all racing states, but most states allow horsemen to use the drug within 72 hours of a race to clear a horse's airway. The fear among some racing regulators is that horsemen will turn to high doses and frequent administrations of the drug or other similar chemicals in order to use it to build muscle, as it does in cattle.
But Dr. Mary Scollay, the equine medical director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, said the use of clenbuterol in such high doses would trigger a positive drug test because of the drug's inability to rapidly clear a horse's system. Other veterinarians said that the use of clenbuterol in high doses would be extremely dangerous.
There are some gaps in the racing industry's ability to detect unapproved anabolic steroids, which are illegal to possess. Current testing methods allow for the detection of approximately 40 anabolic steroids, but there are dozens more available on the black market, and most of those are designed to evade detection.
Aside from pushing forward on tests to detect those steroids, Scollay said regulators needed to be on watch for other exotic drugs that could be used as an alternative, citing the growth-factor drugs that have begun to be commonly used in human sports.
Scollay said that she knows of only one growth-factor type drug that can be used on a horse, but that the drug has not been distributed legally in the United States. The drug is not approved by the FDA, so possession would violate the commission's rules and result in a penalty. To issue the penalty, however, racing commissions would have to search a trainer's barn or a veterinarian's truck, a tactic that is increasingly being used by some aggressive racing commissions.
The drug is called recombinant equine GH, or eGH, and the only country in which it has been found so far is Australia. In studies, it was shown to have significant effects on a horse's growth processes, and can be detected, theoretically, only within one day of administration, due to the speed at which the drug clears the system.