By: T.D. Thornton

The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) approved a series of amendments Feb. 23 with the aim of improving horse safety by better clarifying the state’s protocols for medication use and eligibility conditions, and by tweaking existing rule language to meet the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) standards for of out-of-competition testing.

Several of the actions must still clear a 45-day public comment period before they get officially adopted, but one that already passed that hurdle and went into effect by unanimous vote on Thursday allows racing secretaries to write medication-based eligibility conditions.

The CHRB had previously approved a provision allowing the Los Alamitos Quarter Horse Racing Association to have a house rule that provided for eligibility testing based on pre-race drug screenings. But that house rule got challenged in superior court, and a judge ruled in April 2016 that if the CHRB wanted to allow a racing association to have that sort of house rule, the CHRB would have to alter conflicts that existed between the new pre-race “house” testing and existing CHRB rules.

In July 2016, the CHRB then passed an “emergency” order to allow the Los Al house rule to continue (because the board believed the safety of horses was at stake), and went about solidifying existing Rule #1581 to bring the measure into compliance with the court order.

“These regulations are currently in effect as emergency regulations, and this [vote] is to essentially adopt them on a permanent basis,” said Phil Laird, the CHRB’s general counsel. “What the board will continue to do is the same post-race testing it’s always done. Horses will be required to meet the same thresholds that we’ve always required them to. Really nothing in our post-race testing program will be altered by this regulation.”

The board later unanimously voted to send out for public comment a layoff eligibility rule that stipulates that horses that have not raced for 120 days or more must undergo a special examination by either the “Official Veterinarian” or the “Racing Veterinarian” to verify that the horse is physically sound.

According to the CHRB informational packet for the meeting, that change to existing Rule #1588 came about after staff research showed that “nearly a fifth of all horses that suffer racing fatalities at California racetracks break down in one of their first three races back after coming off an extended layoff.”

The CHRB also unanimously moved along to public comment a measure that changes the language in four existing medication- and testing-related rules and creates two new regulations to achieve the substance of the recently passed ARCI model rule for out-of-competition testing.

“This is looked upon as a very significant measure nationally in terms of the entire industry moving forward to really put some framework around not only the prohibited substances [but also] the therapeutic substances that are allowed,” said CHRB executive director Rick Baedeker.

“This [out-of-competition testing] program is an integrity program in terms of regulating performance-enhancing drugs that are not detectable at post-race testing,” said CHRB equine medical director Rick Arthur, DVM. “That’s what this is primarily about. There are drugs here that should never be on the racetrack. They don’t have any use on the racetrack, [and] the ones that do, we have exceptions to.”

Three other equine safety agenda items–involving how tracks use their racing surfaces out of season, establishing threshold levels for drug test samples taken from horses after workouts, and the limiting of corticosteroids and anti-inflammatory drugs–were all moved off the agenda.

CHRB chairman Chuck Winner explained that those deletions came about because board members and CHRB staff were making “real progress” on reaching workable solutions to those issues with stakeholders without needing to pass formal rules at this time. If necessary, he added, those agenda items could be reconsidered at a future meeting.

Referencing last summer’s spike of equine fatalities at Del Mar and the multifactorial aspects that contribute to catastrophic injuries, Winner said, “We are making progress. In my view, the associations are working with us…We recognize the [catastrophic injury] issue, and we’re dealing with it…I do believe that the industry is really coming together, which I think we all appreciate. We’re trying to deal with this problem, which we all hoped was an aberration, but we have to assume that it wasn’t, and therefore we have to deal with it.” -@thorntontd