THE wave of publicity surrounding Lance Armstrong and cycling means that there is now a huge question of performance-enhancing drugs in sport. So it is likely at some point in the future the media spotlight will focus on racing, as there is the eternal innuendo that drugs are involved in horse racing and are part of success in racing.
I do not believe that to be the case and, with the Armstrong saga fresh in everyone’s mind, it is a good opportunity to discuss the use and misuse of drugs in horse racing.
First, there is a significant difference between horse racing and pretty much every other sport, in that the use of most drugs, including therapeutics, is strictly controlled in racing, whereas in most sports – and Olympic sports – common therapeutics are allowed.
However, there is a specific number of banned drugs that are listed by the World Anti-Doping Agency and they include performance-enhancing drugs, which have no place in sport.
To highlight the difference, if one can imagine an Olympic showjumper training the day before the Olympics and there is a fall where rider and horse sustain the same injuries: a sprained back and a sprained ankle.
That is where the similarities end. The rider can be treated with a range of drugs, including anti-inflammatories, cortisone, local anaesthetics, creams, gels etc. But in stark contrast, none of the treatments used on the rider can be used on the horse, and there are virtually no therapeutic drugs such as anti-inflammatories, cortisones etc that can be used close to an event – most are stopped at least a week before competition.
So what is the difference, and why? The difference primarily relates to the fact that the athlete is governed by WADA and the horse is governed by protocols and rules that have been adopted from horse racing.
WADA was established in 1999, and in 2003 all major international sporting federations and 73 governments signed the Copenhagen Declaration – a resolution accepting WADA as the basis for the fight against doping in all sports.
WADA produced a list of banned drugs. The list is clear and precise and catalogues a surprisingly small number of drugs because it is specifically banning and prohibiting drugs or procedures that are used to improve or enhance sporting performance.
Such drugs include stimulants, narcotics, anabolic steroids, hormones such as growth hormones and erythropoietin (EPO) and diuretics. In addition, WADA has banned procedures such as blood doping – where red blood cells are collected from the athlete, stored and reinjected at a later date with the aim of improving aerobic or endurance performance.
Most of the drugs on WADA’s banned list are modern drugs that have been developed with improved medical technology and they are vital drugs to the patients who require them. Erythropoietin, for example, is a synthetically manufactured copy of the kidney hormone – and is used in patients with kidney failure who cannot produce their own EPO. In the body, EPO is produced by the kidney to regulate the blood count, such that when the blood count is low the kidney releases EPO to go to the bone marrow to increase the production and release of red blood cells into the blood – thus improving the blood count.
So while it is a fantastic drug with a specific therapeutic use – its effect has been identified by endurance athletes who wish to cheat and artificially increase their blood count, enabling better aerobic performance – they can perform faster for longer without fatigue.
Clearly these drugs have no therapeutic effect in a healthy athlete and they are purely used to modify or enhance performance, which is why WADA has placed them on the banned list.
However, WADA does not ban normal therapeutic drugs and, in fact, if an athlete needs to use a drug in a therapeutic way but which is on the banned list, then the athlete and his/her doctor can apply to WADA for a therapeutic exemption. An example of this would be the athlete who needs to use a “puffer” to help manage asthma.
In contrast, horse racing is run on the premise of being ”drug free,” so no drugs – not even therapeutics – are allowed. So when one looks at the drug rules in racing, they are written to be all-inclusive.
In contrast to the narrow list of WADA drugs, the list of prohibited drugs in racing is incredibly broad and encompasses virtually every possible therapeutic drug. The justification for such a wide-ranging rule is animal welfare, that is, as the horses can’t speak for themselves (except Mr Ed), there is a need to protect them from harm which might occur if they were trained and raced on therapeutics such as anti-inflammatories and analgesics.
The position is quite reasonable, but it is interesting to note that in some US states, such as Kentucky, horses are allowed to race on phenylbutazone, a common and effective horse anti-inflammatory.
In addition to the drug-free rule, racing also has a list of totally banned drugs, which is similar to the WADA list and represents drugs that have no place in any sport.
In recent months, Australian racing authorities have introduced screening limits, which apply to these drugs, and they need to be above the screening limit for a positive swab to be called.
This is a significant change – it is a bit like the introduction of the .05 drink-driving rule. It brings Australia into line with other international racing areas such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Europe, but perhaps more importantly, it means that trainers and owners are not penalised by improved drug-testing equipment that can detect a minute trace of a drug in urine – which up until now would result in a positive swab.
Finally, there is the perception that drug use and racing go hand-in-hand. This is not the case and there is no evidence to suggest it. But headlines identifying every positive swab probably help perpetuate this misconception. If one looks at all the positive swabs in racing over the past decade, all bar a couple have been to therapeutic drugs, which would have been allowed under WADA rules.
And if one looks at racing records, there has been no real improvement in race times. Yet we see these improvements in other sports, and while improvement is occurring in training and technology, it can also reflect the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Dr Glenn Robertson-Smith is the founding partner of the Melbourne Equine Veterinary Group, one of the largest veterinary practices in Melbourne. Dr Robertson-Smith is a specialist in equine surgery and consults both here and overseas.
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