By Daniel Ross
With the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Integrity Act's (HISA) anti-doping and medication control program set for launch Monday–pending approval by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)–the inevitable focus will be on the spider web of post-race and out-of-competition testing set to blanket most of the nation.
But with it has come this other question: What do buyers now need to be aware of when purchasing a horse at the sales or privately?
The question has gained added currency since a recent presentation before the Southern California horsemen by representatives from the Horseracing Integrity & Welfare Unit (HIWU), the arm of HISA charged with rolling-out and managing its anti-doping and medication control (ADMC) program.
At that presentation, Mary Scollay, HIWU's chief of science, explained that under the new medication regime, bisphosophonates–a controversial group of drugs used in older horses to tackle issues like navicular disease but also used in younger horses to treat things like sore shins–will be banned from administration in what HISA terms “covered horses.”
(It should be noted that a Thoroughbred becomes a “covered horse” only when it completes its first officially timed and published workout)
“My last two weeks has pretty much been a deep dive into bisphosphonates and how to navigate this stuff,” said Joe Miller, a racing manager and bloodstock advisor, who leans heavily on Europe when scouting for new talent destined for the U.S.
“I actually skipped going to the OBS March sale because I'm so focused on how we're going to be moving forward in navigating these purchases,” Miller added.
For all sorts of reasons, bisphosphonates pose a slippery set of problems for regulators and horsemen alike. Once administered, they can stay in a horse's system for years. Horses given a bisphosphonate won't necessarily test positive for the drug consistently over time either, with a positive finding more likely during periods of bone remodeling, which would release the drug into the horse's system.
Punitive consequences for a positive bisphosphonate finding can be steep. A trainer faces a possible two-year suspension for a first-time bisphosphonate violation, while the horse could be subject to lifetime ineligibility from competition.
HIWU published a notice to the industry on March 10 regarding the use of bisphosphonates under the ADMC program, explaining how only proven administration of a bisphosphonate to a covered horse after the March 27th implementation date would be deemed an actionable violation. Furthermore, HIWU explained that it would not pursue disciplinary action for a positive bisphosphonate finding against a covered horse and its connections, provided those connections can share with HIWU documentation–such as medical records or a positive test result–proving administration or presence of bisphosphonates prior to the ADMC program implementation date.
“In accordance with HISA's requirements for Covered Horses, all medical records, including any relevant test results, must be uploaded to the HISA portal. Additionally, due to the variability of bisphosphonate detection through laboratory analysis, all bisphosphonate findings detected under the ADMC Program will undergo thorough review regardless of the alleged timing of administration,” the notice added.
This still leaves some worrying holes for trainers and owners to potentially fall through.
A fear among buyers is that because of the longevity with which bisphosphonates can stay in the system, a recently purchased horse administered bisphosphonates prior to the ADMC launch date–and unbeknownst to the new connections–could still land them in regulatory hot water.
Furthermore, buyers like Miller are concerned about purchasing horses from international jurisdictions where bisphosphonates are still permitted.
“Since private sales are subject to individual contracts, it is up to the buyer and seller to formalize provisions for bisphosphonates testing and conditions of sale to protect all parties,” wrote Scollay, in response to a list of questions.
Miller hasn't made any international purchases since last October, he said, but he expects that to change in the next few weeks. When Miller does once again plunder foreign shores, “we can definitely do a blood screen for Osphos and Tildren,” he said, singling out two of the more commonly-used bisphosphonates. “I'm hoping we can do a urine screening as well.”
Indeed, urine samples are deemed more accurate than blood screens at detecting bisphosphonates administered longer in advance due to typically higher concentrations in urine of most substances than in the blood.
Though HIWU has stated it will conduct a thorough review in the event of a bisphosphonate positive, “If you come up with a trace amount of bisphosphonate in a post-race urine sample, how is that going to be dealt with?” asked Miller. “Is a horse going to be able to compete while the review is being conducted?”
According to HIWU spokesperson, Alexa Ravit, “HIWU will not just automatically issue a suspension for a Covered Horse or Covered Person upon receiving a positive finding for bisphosphonates.”
Fasig-Tipton is one of the major U.S. sales companies to have taken steps in recent years to limit drug use in the horses that pass through their rings, including offering bisphosphonate testing as a condition of sale for horses younger than four.
If the sale horse tests positive for bisphosphonates, a buyer has the right, within 24 hours of notification, to rescind the sale. In Fasig-Tipton's case, a bisphosphonates test costs $500.
“As with all these drug tests that have come along, it's usually because there has been a shift in the market,” said Bayne Welker, executive vice president of Fasig-Tipton. “That's usually what drives us to make these offerings.”
And as a result of HISA, “I'll probably take the limitations off of the racing age horses,” explained Welker, pointing to the condition of sale bisphosphonate test.
Indeed, Scollay stressed how “buyers should consult sales companies, as applicable, to verify the bisphosphonates testing available as well as the conditions of sale should a purchased horse test positive for bisphosphonates.”
Which leads to concerns over the use of other potentially problematic drugs, especially in horses-in-training purchases.
Major sales companies have moved in recent years to restrict the use in sales horses of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids and bronchodilators, including Clenbuterol. Welker explained that HISA's new ADMC program won't change what condition of sale tests Fasig-Tipton offers for these particular substances.
Perhaps the biggest concern, explained Scollay, would be if the horse has been administered a banned substance that may linger in the horse for an extended period and show up in testing conducted under HISA, with anabolic steroids singled out for concern alongside bisphosphonates.
Scollay recommends that both buyers and sellers refer to HIWU's “Banned List,” which are the substances not permitted to be in a horse at any time once it falls under HISA's jurisdiction.
According to Miller, none of the drugs listed on HIWU's banned substances list cause him particular concern. “I only buy horses off people that we trust,” he said.
Furthermore, Miller said he will continue his current practice of performing a full blood screening of a horse pre-purchase.
“We typically test for steroids, any non-steroidal anti-inflammatories,” said Miller. “We just want to make sure when we do a soundness exam on a horse, we want to make sure they haven't been given anything.”
In regards private testing, however, there is an important distinction for stakeholders moving forward.
HIWU has contracted six labs around the country to conduct its testing program:
The Ohio Department of Agriculture's Analytical Toxicology Laboratory; the Animal Forensic Toxicology Laboratory at the University of Illinois-Chicago; Industrial Laboratories in Denver, Colo.; Kenneth L. Maddy Equine Analytical Chemistry Laboratory at the University of California-Davis; Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture's Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory; and University of Kentucky Equine Analytical Chemistry Laboratory.
Trainers and owners can ask HIWU to conduct clearance testing on a horse–for a fee–provided there is a reported administration history of a particular substance. Clearance testing though HIWU will be conducted at these six labs.
But these same HIWU-affiliated labs are prohibited by contract from testing any covered racehorses from private clients, explained Jeff Blea, California Horse Racing Board equine medical director.
And does Blea have any broader advice for industry stakeholders looking to close a sale after Monday?
“Any purchase of a horse as a buyer, you should have a conversation with your veterinarian as to what your concerns are and what your risk tolerance is relative to drug testing as a condition of sale,” Blea replied.
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