Op/Ed: Nutraceuticals: The Shadow of American Horseracing

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Conor Crawford

By Conor Crawford

Numerous Op/Eds have been penned detailing and debating medication use in American racing. However, racing regulators and industry leaders have targeted drugs and medication to the exclusion of an even bigger threat to equine welfare and the competitive integrity of American horseracing: nutraceuticals.

Nutraceuticals, generally, are orally administered substances supposed to have pharmaceutical properties, which include but are not limited to vitamins and minerals fed at high dosages, herbal combinations, and chemical compounds. So long as their labels do not purport to prevent disease or achieve drug-like effects, veterinary nutraceuticals evade Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) regulation. This, paradoxically, was the result of a 1996 Federal Register notice, in which the FDA determined that the weak federal framework governing human supplements (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, or “DSHEA”) would not apply to animals. The FDA sought to preserve its strong oversight of feed additives that had prevailed since passage of the Food Additives Amendment of 1958 (“FAA”), which required substances incorporated into animal feeds to be “generally recognized as safe.” However, the 1996 notice did not account for nutraceutical supplements which are not incorporated into animal feeds.

In the two decades since the 1996 Federal Register notice, nutraceuticals have proliferated in American horseracing. Horseracing’s incentives drive the overuse and abuse of nutraceuticals, much as they do with drugs. The difference is that whereas drugs must pass rigorous FDA safety and efficacy guidelines and remain subject to stringent testing (however disparate across state lines), nutraceuticals are absent from state rulebooks and enter the market without FDA oversight.

Any trainer can tell an anecdote of being offered a nutraceutical supplement on the backside. While most are snake oil, many nutraceuticals are endorsed by leading industry personalities and appear in the folds of multiple industry publications. Common nutraceuticals are used to combat degenerative joint disease (“DJD”) without an injection; to reduce inflammation without Bute; to stimulate muscle-building amino acids without anabolic steroids; and to boost red blood cell count without EPO. None are subject to oversight.

Performance-enhancing nutraceuticals threaten the competitive integrity of American horseracing. Ineffective nutraceuticals threaten equine welfare, impair performance, and cost Thoroughbred owners thousands of dollars in needless expenses. The tendency for nutraceuticals to fall into one of these two categories–performance enhancing or dangerous–makes it essential that they be regulated on equal terms with drugs and medication.

Nutraceuticals also threaten to displace safe, regulated, and accessible drugs. Medications that are permitted in racing must pass rigorous FDA guidelines, and equine drug manufacturers must present research demonstrating their products’ therapeutic benefits. Nutraceuticals, by contrast, are marketed without scientific backing. And when testing labs are not familiar with these products, nutraceuticals can be given to a Thoroughbred at any time and at any dosage.

Racing regulators must remove their blinkers and cast light on the shadow that has for too long lingered over horseracing. American industry leaders have failed to grasp a basic principle of FDA law–that the “drug” label indicates safety and efficacy, transparently shedding light on medications that can be used, subject to rigorous regulations. They have done nothing to address nutraceuticals. Regulators at the state level and federal legislation should expressly regulate nutraceuticals as “controlled substances.” Racing regulators should also require nutraceutical manufacturers to present scientific research demonstrating the safety and efficacy of new products before they are marketed to horsemen.

In a world of proper oversight, nutraceuticals that do best by the Thoroughbred can become a force for good in racing, and detrimental nutraceuticals will be exposed for the snake oil that they are. More remarkably, after years of scandal, installing a regulatory infrastructure for nutraceuticals in American horseracing would cast the ‘Sport of Kings’ in a rarified light: as an exemplar for animal welfare.

Read Conor Crawford’s full paper here.

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