Nearly all of the horses that died at Santa Anita last year were on medication, records show…
Half of the three dozen horses that died at Santa Anita Park in the 12 months prior to the current meet were on at least one anti-inflammatory medication, a major focal point of the investigation into equine deaths at the racetrack.
In several cases, according to a review of a year’s worth of necropsies, horses were on two different types of the pain reliever.
Critics argue the overuse of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, or NSAIDs, masks the injuries of horses and increases the chances of a fatal breakdown on the racetrack. The California Horse Racing Board’s research indicates 90% of breaks stem from preexisting injuries. Animal rights organizations say these medications likely contributed to the deaths of 23 horses at Santa Anita since the season began Dec. 26.
The California Horse Racing Board, the state’s regulatory agency, is not releasing necropsies for those horses because its investigation is ongoing. Experts believe the deaths are multifactorial, much in the same way a plane crash is rarely caused by one problem.
The deaths in the year prior suggest medications could have contributed, as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other organizations have alleged.
88% of horses were on meds
Necropsies reveal that roughly 88% of the 36 horses that died from Dec. 29, 2017, to Dec. 10, 2018, were on a medication, ranging from diuretics to sedatives, the latter of which could have been administered during euthanasia. The list of medications is likely under-reported, because the information is voluntarily provided and may not be turned over if the regular attending veterinarian is not available.
For example, Lasix, an anti-bleeding diuretic and easily the most prolific medication in the industry, was missing from two-thirds of the necropsies. Yet those horses were often listed as on Lasix by racing cards available on Equibase, a racing statistics website.
Postmortem toxicology also was performed only on a case-by-case basis until recently, officials said.
Santa Anita is already moving forward with a series of reforms in light of the deaths this season. Some changes could lessen the effects of medications, including plans to hire more veterinarians and require more transparency surrounding medical records. The venue also will extend the time period in which horses are prohibited from receiving medications before a race.
“As the recent tragedies at Santa Anita have illustrated, thoroughbred racing in the United States is at a crossroads,” Santa Anita’s owners said in a statement. “The Stronach Group is fully committed to modernizing our sport in a way that prioritizes the welfare and safety of horses, above all.”
Though some of its new rules regarding medication are among the toughest in the country, critics believe even stricter reforms, more similar to those in Europe, are necessary. TSG has said its initial reforms are the start, not the end.
Risks of anti-inflammatories
Currently, trainers can use anti-inflammatories to keep a horse on a demanding training schedule, or to push it to compete, when it should be resting instead, according to James Gagliano, president and chief operating office of The Jockey Club, the breed registry for thoroughbreds in the United States.
“These drugs have the effect of potentially masking pain or some other preexisting injury and allowing the horse to travel more freely without indicating they have an injury,” Gagliano said.
Of the 36 deaths reviewed, 19 of the horses were euthanized following a catastrophic break in a forelimb. In 2016-17, roughly 80 percent of all reported racing injuries involved at least one of the two front legs.
The industry relies on prerace inspections to catch injured horses before they run, but anti-inflammatories can hide the evidence from veterinarians.
Internationally, medication use is more heavily regulated than in the United States. Fatal breakdowns in other countries are up to five times less likely, Gagliano said. In a statement, The Stronach Group cited the same statistic, calling it unacceptable and saying it must change immediately.
Phenylbutazone and flunixin are the most common NSAIDs in American horse racing. Much like an aspirin for a human, these drugs reduce swelling and pain. The NSAIDs are injected or swallowed.
In California, horses are not permitted to have more than one anti-inflammatory in their system during a race. And the state places strict limits on the quantities that can show up in post-racing blood and urine tests.
There are no thresholds for training, however.
In 2012, the state reduced the amount of phenylbutazone, often referred to as bute, allowed in postracing samples from 5 micrograms to 2. The CHRB’s staff at the time argued the higher dosage made it more difficult to detect preexisting injuries.
Extending the time between drugs and racing
Until the changes adopted last month, horses at Santa Anita could receive bute 24 hours before a race. The Stronach Group recently doubled the time frame to 48 hours in the wake of the surge of deaths at the renowned venue. The Jockey Club believes racetracks in the United States should adopt international standards prohibiting NSAIDs as much as six days earlier.
PETA has called for a ban on all medications up to two weeks in advance, according to Kathy Guillermo, the nonprofit’s senior vice president.
“If the horse needs medication, then the horse shouldn’t be training or racing,” Guillermo said. “It is so logical and straightforward, but the racing industry is addicted to drugs.”
Following protests from PETA, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office launched a criminal investigation into the deaths so far this season.
“They need to look at what condition the horses were in before they got on the track,” Guillermo said. “I hope they go that far in the investigation, because somebody needs to.”
Veterinarian Jeff Blea, who practices at Santa Anita and Del Mar, said the use of NSAIDs is common enough that he believes most, if not all, horses run on them. However, two days is sufficient time for the pain-relieving effects to wear off, he said.
“If you give it 48 hours, there is very little likelihood that medication is going to have any effect on the prerace exam,” he said.
Horses now will typically have much less than the allowable 2 micrograms in their system by race day, he said. At the previous levels, subtle warning signs could be difficult to detect, he said.
“If they’ve been medicated recently, it’s difficult sometimes to get a real good baseline on the actual physical state of the horse,” he said.
Blea isn’t opposed to giving a horse bute and other anti-inflammatorites. Any medication can be abused, he said, but he agrees that horses shouldn’t race if they need it.
“Scratch him and come back another day,” he said. “It’s better for the horse and it’s better for the rider.”
Fines range up to $10,000
NSAIDs made up 62% of the 109 medication violations at California racetracks in fiscal year 2017-18. Nine of the horses tested at more than double the limit for bute. In another 20 horses, two or more anti-inflammatories showed up in their blood and urine tests.
Violations can lead to a warning or fines ranging from $500 to $10,000, depending on the number of offenses in the same year and the amount of medication detected. Owners also can have their horse disqualified and lose the race’s purse in some circumstances
Though the CHRB does a small amount of out-of-competition testing, the bulk of its samples are collected from races. Approximately 20% of the horses at all meets are selected for testing, according to the CHRB. Less than 1% of drug testing in American horse racing is done out of competition, according to The Jockey Club.
The organization responsible for the thoroughbred breed registry is advocating for more testing and the establishment of an independent, nationwide anti-doping agency that could unify the various racing jurisdictions and inconsistent regulations across the country. Lawmakers introduced the Horse Racing Integrity Act in March with the same goals in mind.
Vets paid based on meds prescribed
The Jockey Club’s recent white paper, “Vision 2025, To Prosper, Horse Racing Needs Comprehensive Reform,” criticizes the industry for paying veterinarians largely based on pharmaceutical sales, rather than diagnostic services.
“To my knowledge, there’s not been a wholesale acceptance by horse owners and their trainers to pay for diagnosis,” Gagliano said. “They’re charged upon the administration of medication. That’s probably a bad business model for all involved.”
Blea, the veterinarian, said the club’s proposal made vets look like “drug peddlers.” Most will only prescribe or dispense medications if they have a relationship with the horse already. The industry is already transitioning to a more service-oriented model, he argued.
“We would rather be paid for what we do and what we know,” he said. “If I didn’t sell medications, people wouldn’t bother me at all, unfortunately, because of the way the business model is set up at the racetrack. We don’t want people doing that.”