Racing regulators examine use, effects of bisphosphonates

By: Jennie Rees

Posted: April 5, 2018

Bisphosphonates—a class of drugs that prevent bone-density loss—might have some therapeutic value for older racehorses, but speakers at the Conference on Equine Welfare and Racing Integrity warned of the potential harm caused by such treatments for young horses such yearlings and 2-year-olds.

That was among the takeaways from the April 4 Animal Welfare Forum of the Association of Racing Commissioners International annual conference, held in Hot Springs, Ark. The related discussion included how pari-mutuel racing regulators might address abuse of bisphosphonates and at what stage should horses come under the jurisdiction of a racing regulatory authority.

Dr. Jeff Blea, a Southern California veterinarian who is the past chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and heads its Racing Committee, called bisphosphonates “a nuclear button right now, not only in the racing industry but in the breeding industry.”

Dr. Lynn Hovda, the Minnesota Racing Commission Equine Medical Director, said bisphosphonates don’t just impact what could be a sore bone or joint, but they go throughout the skeletal system.

And Dr. Sue Stover, a professor at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, said the rational for giving young horses bisphosphonates is to ward off stress fractures, joint problems and some abnormalities. “Ultimately it was just the silver bullet of preventing all these problems,” she said.

However, Stover said bisphosphonates in young horses actually interfere with the development and growth of bone, reduce bone’s ability to heal, and make bone more susceptible to cracks. One study of Israel military recruits showed bisphosphonates did not prevent stress fractures when given before training, she said.

One of Stover’s major concerns is that bisphosphonates, as analgesics, have the potential to mask pain.

Conference attendee Carrie Brogden—a breeder and consigner whose Machmer Hall Farm in Paris, Ky., bred champion Tepin—said she and husband Craig do not treat horses with bisphosphonates but that the panel opened her eyes about what could be an industry problem.

“You’re talking about horses who may have been treated as yearlings coming down the race pipeline,” she said. “I guess it’s a small sample right now. But this is being kind of pushed in Lexington (in Central Kentucky) as like the safe cure, not as something to be avoided.”

Blea said taking a page from the British Horseracing Authority’s ban on bisphosphonates in racehorses under 3 1/2 years old and requiring a 30-day “stand down” from racing “would be a good place to start.” He said the AAEP recently assembled a committee to discuss bisphosphonates and mentioned a talk on the subject that he gave two years ago to several hundred veterinarians.

“I asked, ‘How many people are using bisphosphonates in their practice?’ ” Blea said. “There might have been five or six people raise their hands. After the talk, 25 people came up to me asked me, ‘Is there a test for it?’

“The reality is that we don’t know enough about it. I’ve spoken to practitioners who have told me it is rampant in the Thoroughbred yearling industry, rampant in the 2-year-old training sales. I know it’s being used on the racetrack, though I don’t believe it’s being used as much on the racetrack as people think. I think it’s one of those things that have come and gone.”

But John Campbell, the legendary Standardbred driver who last year retired to become President and Chief Executive Officer of the Hambletonian Society, said the Standardbred industry has had “great luck” using bisphosphonates to treat young horses with distal cannon-bone disease with “no adverse effects that I can see.” He noted that Thoroughbreds are much more at risk of catastrophic injuries than the gaited Standardbreds.

ARCI President Ed Martin urged racing regulators to start working on a model rule as to when jurisdiction over a horse begins, which could allow them to address the concern over bisphosphonates. One of ARCI’s missions is to create model rules that provide the member regulatory groups a blueprint for their own laws or legislation dealing with all aspects of horse racing.

“I think it would behoove all of us to work on a model regulatory policy so we have uniformity in terms of when the horse should come under the jurisdiction of the racing commission,” Martin said. “When we talk about out-of-competition testing or questioning the use of certain medications, the first thing somebody is going to say is, ‘You don’t have jurisdiction over this horse, and you don’t regulate the practice of veterinary medicine.’ ”

Matt Iuliano, Executive Vice President of The Jockey Club, said that about 75% of Thoroughbreds will make a start by age 4, leaving a 25% “leakage rate.” He suggested a more cost-effective and logical place to put horses under regulatory control is once they have a timed workout, indicating an intent to race. “You’ve probably taken that 75% to 90%,” he said.

Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, agreed with starting regulatory control with a horse’s first published work. He expressed hope for a common-sense rule that would be fair to everyone.

As for use of bisphosphonates, Hamelback said: “There is a lack of facts and research being done. We don’t want to go after writing rules just to write rules. Finding out exactly, if there is a concern—and what that concern is—to me is the most important first stage. And then where we’re going to attack and fix the problem.”

(ARCI conference photo by Jennie Rees)