Undetectable drugs might have role in horse racing deaths

John Cherwa, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Horse Racing

LOS ANGELES -- Horse racing has never experienced a year like this one. A spike of deaths at Santa Anita, Keeneland and tracks in New York, mixed with a controversial finish in the Kentucky Derby that prompted a lawsuit, have left the sport with a crisis-a-week feel.

This week, there is plenty more anxiety as attention turns to the Breeders' Cup races, horse racing's version of the Super Bowl. There will be 14 races, each with purses of at least $1 million, on Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita -- over a track where there have been six horse fatalities in the last six weeks.

Thirty horses died during Santa Anita's last winter-spring meet, and there was some speculation that the sport's annual showcase might be moved to another venue. Santa Anita's owner, the Stronach Group, responded to the crisis by enacting several reforms in medication usage and veterinarian care that will be used for the Breeders' Cup races.

But experts are concerned about a drug treatment for which there are no rules, one used on some horses before they start racing, that might lead to more breakdowns and serious injuries.

In humans, bisphosphonates are used to treat osteoporosis. In young horses, they can alter the normal regeneration of bone and act as an analgesic -- a pain reliever. And currently, their use cannot be traced.

A horse that has been treated with these drugs and is going to sale as a yearling or 2-year-old will have radiographs that can hide any sign of sesamoiditis, an inflammation of one of the lower bones of the leg. Plus, the analgesic effect will additionally hide any signs of lameness. The horse will look completely healthy.


"It's a ticking time bomb," said Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer of the Stronach Group. "These medications keep me awake at night."

One of the many problems with these drugs -- commonly sold under the names Osphos and Tildren -- is that they are only detectable in the blood for about 30 days, sometimes slightly longer. Their usage can't even be detected in necropsies. Yet their effect can be long-lasting.

"If the sale is in September, you're administering it from February to April," said Dr. Mary Scollay, executive director and chief operating officer of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, or RMTC. "Radiographs are taken 30 days out, so the treatment window is outside the window to detect."

How widespread the usage of these drugs is remains unclear.


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