By T. D. Thornton
Beyond the relatively obscure and exotic performance-enhancing drugs allegedly administered to the Thoroughbreds of federally indicted trainers who were charged in March in a years-long doping racket, subsequent testing on the New York contingent of those horses revealed 77% of them had clenbuterol in their systems.
And because medical records associated with those Thoroughbreds didn't indicate that drug was administered for its intended purpose (to treat a medically legitimate airway disease), New York State Gaming Commission equine medical director Scott Palmer, VMD, said that the study he conducted on that set of horses offers proof that clenbuterol has been widely abused to bulk up horses, allowing their trainers to gain a pharmaceutical edge that makes the animals stronger and faster.
Palmer's comments came during a Nov. 11 video press conference hosted by stakeholders and regulators who make up a Mid-Atlantic alliance of racing interests. His revelations about clenbuterol were just one example of how that group has been advancing a safety-centric agenda aimed at reducing equine fatalities in the region, which includes racing jurisdictions in New York, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.
That study on clenbuterol that Palmer worked on also bolstered the Mid-Atlantic alliance's recent push to eliminate the allowable race-day threshold for clenbuterol. On Oct. 22, the Maryland Racing Commission took the first steps toward turning that initiative into a new rule, and Palmer said on Wednesday other regional states are in the pipeline to follow.
Trainer Jason Servis, Jorge Navarro, and 22 others in both the Thoroughbred and Standardbred industries are facing federal charges in an alleged “widespread, corrupt scheme” dating to at least 2017 that centers on a vast network of co-conspirators who purportedly manufactured, mislabeled, rebranded, distributed and administered performance-enhancing drugs to racehorses all across America and in international races.
Palmer explained that when the indictments and arrests were first made public back in March, he took it as an opportunity to try and detect what other, more commonplace, substances were being used as performance-enhancers. He said he suspected clenbuterol because of the bronchodilator medication's well-known, off-label potential for abuse as a substance that delivers similar lean muscle-building results as anabolic steroids.
“There was a whole list that the FBI generated through wiretapping these people that came up with a lot of medications,” Palmer said. “When I reviewed that list, certainly a lot of it looked to me like a 'snake-oil' situation where I wasn't convinced that the things on that list were really making much of a [performance enhancement] difference. But I was concerned that there were other things that might be given to these horses that didn't show up on the indictment list that could be a big factor.
“One of them was clenbuterol,” Palmer continued. “Clenbuterol is a drug that has, in addition to its ability to affect lower airway disease and improve it, [an ability to act as] a repartitioning agent [that] is used in humans for body-building effects. It's basically an end-run around on our anabolic steroid ban, and so I was very interested in proving that.”
Palmer said he required New York-based Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds from the barns of indicted trainers to be placed on the stewards' list, adding that other jurisdictions did the same. Specimen samples were taken, the horses had to be out of competition for about a month while analysis was performed, and then had to have workouts approved by a commission veterinarian and pass yet another drug test before they would be allowed to race for new conditioners.
This process took about 60 days total, and Palmer said that in New York, nearly 200 Standardbreds and almost 100 Thoroughbreds were tested twice in this manner.
“In the Thoroughbred breed, 77% of those horses [initially] had levels of clenbuterol in their blood,” Palmer said. “[We then] asked for the medical records on these horses. We haven't gotten through them all yet, but we haven't found any that had clenbuterol administration listed in their medical records. That's a strong indication that this drug is being given for purposes other than the normal prescribed reason for giving clenbuterol.”
After years of speculation, Palmer said, “we had concrete evidence that clenbuterol was being widely abused in the Thoroughbred horses.”
Armed with that information, the Mid-Atlantic alliance of racetracks, horsemen's groups and regulators set about making the case for stricter clenbuterol regulations.
“It's going to be introduced in New York shortly, and it's going to be widely adopted in the Mid-Atlantic region,” Palmer said.
Also during Wednesday's press conference, the alliance announced that the equine fatality rate in the region has dropped from 1.78 per thousand starts in 2019 to 1.21 per thousand to date so far this year, a decrease of 33%.
“It is heartening to see that the commitment and hard work of so many in the Mid-Atlantic is bearing fruit,” said Alan Foreman, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. “We have representatives from every faction of the Thoroughbred industry in the region at the table. Everyone has the chance to be heard and their specific issues considered. We are proud to say that, working together, we have been able to make significant advances on issues of medication reform and horse health.”
Among those changes, every state in the Mid-Atlantic alliance has adopted the following reforms:
- A prohibition on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) “stacking” (the use of more than one NSAID in the week of a race).
- Transfer of joint injection records for claimed horses.
- Necropsies on equine fatalities and a mortality review board.
- Voidable claim rules.
Additional reforms have been implemented in all states except West Virginia, including:
- 48-hour withdrawal time for NSAIDs.
- Enhanced penalties for NSAID overages.
- 14-day withdrawal for joint injections
There is a strict prohibition on the use of bisphosphonates in all horses under the age of four throughout the region, with a total ban in place in Maryland and Pennsylvania.