By: T.D. Thornton
Thoroughbreds racing in California will no longer be allowed to race with any detectable level of the bronchodilator medication clenbuterol in their systems, effective Nov. 15.
The change is a result of evidence the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) has collected via out-of-competition testing (OOC), and the measure was passed unanimously Thursday by the CHRB in a 4-0 vote.
The CHRB’s data analysis of OOC testing results recently revealed patterns of the drug being used not for valid therapeutic administration, but as part of conditioning regimens in which trainers appear to be asking for barn-wide clenbuterol prescriptions in an effort to reap a known side effect of the drug that gives an anabolic steroid-like edge.
Clenbuterol is banned in human sports by the World Anti-Doping Association for that very reason, plus the drug’s ability to burn fat and reduce weight quickly. In recent years, professional baseball players, boxers, cyclists, and Olympic athletes in various sports have all been penalized for using it.
Clenbuterol does have legitimate veterinary use in horses (and humans) with respiratory problems, and it will still be permitted by the CHRB for that purpose. But the drug must clear a horse’s system prior to racing in order not to trigger a penalty.
The clenbuterol limit that was on the books for Thoroughbreds in California had been 140 picograms per milliliter in post-race testing. As of Nov. 15, the limit will drop to zero (no permissible level).
“What’s happened over the last … six to eight months, we’re seeing more and more clenbuterol use, and it’s not [randomly distributed],” CHRB equine medical director Rick Arthur, DVM, testified at Thursday’s monthly CHRB meeting. “Some trainers use it more than others, and that’s been confirmed by monitoring the reports of prescriptions … [We’re seeing veterinarians] prescribe the drug to a large number of horses in one barn and have no prescriptions in the others. So it seems to be more of a trainer-driven prescription than a veterinary-driven prescription.”
Arthur said the new clenbuterol regulation deviates from Association of Racing Commissioners International Model Rules “because it is more restrictive than the National Uniform Medication Policy.”
Arthur added that “from discussions with colleagues in similar regulatory positions as mine around the country, we are not the only jurisdiction to deal with this issue. We just have better data because of our extensive OOC testing program.”
In order to safeguard horses, the CHRB has the power to make “emergency” changes to permissible medications and substances, but those changes can be in effect for only 12 months from the date of passage. That was how Thursday’s modification was passed.
But in a separate agenda item, the CHRB also advanced to the 45-day public comment period a rule change that, if eventually voted in, will make the clenbuterol-on-raceday ban permanent.
Greg Avioli, the president and chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, told commissioners that while he wasn’t going to object to the passage of the new rule because he felt it was a “fait accompli,” he did take umbrage with the proposal coming up “at the last minute” without stakeholders getting a chance to vet it properly.
In contrast, Alan Balch, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said his organization held a statewide teleconference meeting about the issue and that “our constituents, we think, are very well informed and supportive of this.”
Commissioner Madeline Auerbach also thought stakeholders had worked in concert despite relatively short notice, saying that she found it “amazing” that the racing community acted cooperatively to bring the clenbuterol ban on raceday to quick fruition.
“This was the first time that I can remember that I didn’t have to push anybody to have a meeting, that I didn’t have to ask them to get together to talk about it,” Auerbach said. “The community did it themselves … Nobody wants anybody to have either a perceived or a real advantage because of the potential anabolic steroid effect of clenbuterol.”
Arthur said that in an effort to allay fears of positive post-race tests if horses have been recently administered clenbuterol but plan to race as soon as Nov. 15, the CHRB will arrange for free pre-race screenings for the drug.
“The bulk of horses will test clear if they’re taken off clenbuterol today,” Arthur said.
Added Auerbach: “I’m concerned about making sure the community knows that we’re not being draconian; that they will have the opportunity, if they think there might be a problem, to have their horses tested at no cost.”