Citing a problem determining accurate withdrawal dates for the controlled therapeutic medication methylprednisolone acetate, the National Steeplechase Association reversed two stewards' rulings from this spring - eliminating $1,000 fines to two trainers from spring violations and following a similar decision by the Virginia Racing Commission.
The moves point to plenty of confusion over the use of the medication, an injectable corticosteroid used to treat arthritis and other joint problems, and its presence in post-race drug tests.
In order, this spring:
- Decoy Daddy tested positive for the medication (brand name Depo-Medrol) after placing second in the $50,000 Temple Gwathmey hurdle handicap at Middleburg Spring April 18. The horse was disqualified and trainer Cyril Murphy was fined $1,000. He maintained that his veterinarian followed recommended withdrawal times for the medication's use, treating Decoy Daddy's pelvis 45 days before the race, but did not appeal.
- Tubal tested positive for the medication after winning the $40,000 maiden hurdle at the Virginia Gold Cup May 2. Trainer Kevin Tobin asked for a split sample and a hearing, which delayed a stewards' ruling. Like Murphy, Tobin maintained he followed the recommended standards when having the horse treated 31 days before the race though Tubal ran (but was not tested afterward) also two weeks earlier.
- African Oil tested positive for the medication after winning the $40,000 maiden hurdle at the Iroquois Steeplechase May 9. The horse was disqualified and trainer Kate Dalton fined $1,000. She asked for a split sample, filed an appeal and received a stay pending a hearing. Like the others, Dalton maintained that she and her veterinarian had followed published guidelines when injecting the horse's hocks 22 days before the win (but eight days before an earlier start, where the horse was not tested).
The Virginia Gold Cup Races, which have pari-mutuel wagering, run under the Virginia Racing Commission's jurisdiction when it comes to drug testing, penalties and stewards' decisions. The other two cases were under the NSA's medication rules, testing procedures, stewards' findings and appeals process.
Virginia and the NSA are both part of the National Uniform Medication Program launched in the Mid-Atlantic and based on Racing Commissioners International and Racing Medication Testing Consortium standards. Methylprednisolone is on the list of 24 controlled therapeutic medications with a testing limit of 100 picograms per milliliter.
The confusion starts with the wording published in the NSA condition book and guidelines from other states. The listing for methylprednisolone shows a withdrawal time of seven days, but also contains the text, "The recommended withdrawal time for methylprednisolone acetate is a minimum of 21 days at a 100 mg dose." A December 2014 memo to veterinarians and horsemen from the New York State Gaming Commission cautioned that the 100 pg/ml threshold level for methylprednisolone could be exceeded by administrations performed months earlier - 99 days for an intra-muscular treatment, 50 days for some joint injections. New York's equine medical director Dr. Scott Palmer concluded in the memo that Depo-Medrol should not be administered to any horse racing in New York beginning Jan. 1, 2015.
New York, like Virginia and the NSA, is part of the uniform medication program. The three jurisdictions use different testing laboratories, but have the same methylprednisolone threshold.
The New York memo caused trainers and veterinarians there to stop using methylprednisolone, and also triggered similar reactions by other veterinarians. Based at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, Dr. Chuck Arensberg said his practice advised trainers to stop using methylprednisolone as soon as he saw the memo - no matter where they raced. There's a chance any horse could go to New York, he said, and the threshold levels are the same in other states.
"We don't have any racing here, but we have to know about racing in New York and everywhere," said Arensberg, who works with Dr. Kathy Anderson at Equine Veterinary Care within the training center. "We spend an inordinate amount of time looking at this stuff and have to be proactive. I was fairly surprised when I heard about these cases. We stopped using it."
The NSA circuit does not race in December, January or February. Trainers are based primarily on private farms or training centers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina - and use a variety of veterinarians.
"Where is a centralized location to find out things like this?" said Arensberg. "Let's say I'm a farm vet and I've got one steeplechase client. What do I do to find out? You might be doing the same thing you always did, but that might not be what you're supposed to do anymore."
Back to the methylprednisolone cases, Dalton and Kentucky attorney Joel Turner were planning an appeal based on the language in the recommendation and the lack of communication to horsemen and veterinarians.
Then came Virginia's decision on Tobin's positive.
In a stewards' ruling dated June 24, the Virginia Racing Commission determined (among other things) that the methylprednisolone administration was done 31 days prior to the race, that the guideline is "misleading and inaccurate," and that in the opinion of the commission's equine medical director the medication had no pharmacological effect on race day.
Based on that and despite the positive drug test, the stewards did not disqualify Tubal and did not fine Tobin, although he was issued a letter of reprimand. In addition, Virginia recommended a 60-day withdrawal time for methylprednisolone at the International Gold Cup Races this fall (with Colonial Downs closed, Virginia's racing commission oversees no other Thoroughbred racing).
Two days later, the NSA issued a ruling from its Hearing, Review and Appeals Committee vacating the African Oil disqualification and rescinding the fine against Dalton. NSA President Guy Torsilieri also said Murphy's penalty was rescinded, though stewards still need to address Decoy Daddy's disqualification.
Torsilieri called the moves the right decision.
"Based on (the Virginia) ruling, the NSA decided to rethink the position on the rulings we have," he said. "We needed to be consistent and the Hearing, Review and Appeals Committee, the Stewards Advisory Committee and the stewards at the Iroquois convened and discussed it. They were not happy with the decisions, but in the interests of racing and in moving forward they chose the path they chose. In light of where we are, we need to move forward."
Torsilieri made a point to say the NSA plans to address a new methylprednisolone withdrawal time (all summer steeplechases are run at pari-mutuel tracks and therefore under the various state racing commission testing procedures) before the fall season. The NSA conducts racing in 11 states, but acts as one regulatory body for its spring and fall dates and has been an early proponent of uniform medication rules. Many state regulators (including NSA representatives) met Wednesday at Delaware Park to discuss medication issues and Torsilieri expected methylprednisolone to be on the agenda. New York's new rule, in effect since Jan. 1, calls for pre-race testing for any horse administered Depo-Medrol. If a horse tests above the threshold, it will not be allowed to race in the state.
"Right now, we have three recommendations," Torsilieri said of the NSA, Virginia and New York. "We have 21 days, or seven depending on how you read it, we have 60 days and we have a warning against using it at all. When you have a positive, you have an issue. I would think in the next few days the NSA will probably follow the lead of NYRA."