Do what is best for the horse: Drug testing, doping agents, racing surfaces, and more

If one considers the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) just another one of the alphabet soup agencies involved in global racing, one misses the point. An organization of 60 member countries dedicated to promoting strong regulation and best practices for the Thoroughbred racing industry internationally, the IFHA held its 48th International Conference of Horseracing Authorities in Paris on Monday, the day after Treve’s brilliant performance in winning her second consecutive Arc.

The IFHA develops and promulgates a large number of important Thoroughbred racing initiatives, and all come back to the well being of the horse. The organization’s highly regarded chairman, Louis Romanet, summed this up succinctly in his closing remarks at the meeting. “Horse Welfare is paramount for IFHA. We must identify best practice approaches. We must develop global standards. We must promote education and research initiatives. No horse welfare policy will succeed without taking into account public perception.” 

A lot of ground was covered in the Oct. 6 meeting, and I would like to address a few specific areas of interest to me. 

Dr. Yves Bonnaire, director of Laboratoires des Courses Hippiques presented a comprehensive report on international efforts to achieve harmonization on testing lab certification and to identify and categorize doping agents or performance enhancing drugs. These include anabolic agents, substances acting on the level of oxygen transported in a horse, growth hormones and peptides, and hormone and metabolic modulators. Research has shown that testing for some of these doping agents is not effective in the post-race environment. That is, performance-enhancing effects can continue long after detectable levels of the drug have left the horse’s body. It was one of the strongest arguments I have heard in favor of adopting a specific sampling program and significantly increasing random out-of-competition testing.

Andrew Harding, director of racing development at the Hong Kong Jockey Club spoke on the international movement of horses. This has become an important issue as major racing events around the globe are seeking to attract a broader range of international competitors. It is clear that substantial efforts by the IFHA to work with the International Horse Sports Federation (IHSC) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) are essential for expanding the movement of racehorses around the world. 

As a former racetrack executive, I was especially interested in the “Racetrack Surfaces and Safety” panel. This panel was chaired by Brian Kavanagh, CEO of Horse Racing Ireland and Vice Chair of the IFHA with speakers Mick Peterson, professor at the University of Maine and executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, and Graham Motion, President of Herringswell Stables, and trainer of many world class horses including Dubai World Cup and Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom

As Mick Peterson pointed out early in his presentation, “our” collective goal is to reduce injuries in racehorses. He cited six factors in musculo-skeletal disease: 

  • Conformation
  • Individual predisposition
  • Pre-existing disease
  • Shoeing
  • Training
  • Track surfaces 

Peterson stressed that while tracks are only one factor, they can improve safety and build confidence in racing. Peterson and his colleagues have applied significant advances in the science of racing surface management and the tools for tracking the condition of a racing surface, be it synthetic, turf, or dirt. He outlined five functional properties of all racing surfaces: firmness, cushioning, responsiveness, grip, and uniformity. All of these functional properties can be routinely measured, and it is through measurement and tracking of data on maintenance processes that Peterson says track superintendents can “build a safety critical system every day.”

Trainer Graham Motion spoke eloquently about the differences in racing and training on the three track surfaces. Motion trains at Fair Hill in the mid-Atlantic region that is equipped with a Tapeta training surface, as well as turf and dirt courses. Motion strongly advocated the synthetic option, particularly on rainy days (drains well) and in cold weather (remains a consistent surface). 

While Motion said he felt there was a place for synthetic tracks in America, he also considered the synthetic installations mandated in California in 2006 to be an overreaction, noting that the roll-out of synthetics in this country appeared flawed for the following reasons:

  • Some corners were cut in the construction phase
  • Not enough was known about them and how they react in extreme heat or extreme weather.
  • The track maintenance crews were ill prepared on how to cope with them. These tracks were introduced as somewhat maintenance free. In reality, they take a great deal of upkeep. 

In closing, Motion stated, “The point is I believe there is a place for synthetics in America. They should not have been installed as quickly as they were but they should not be dismissed…What we should all want is the safety and well being of the horse. What’s the best surface for the horse to race on? It’s worth the effort to find out.”

Finally, The Jockey Club of the U.S., a founding member of the IFHA, concluded the conference with Chairman, Ogden Mills (Dinny) Phipps giving the keynote address. Near the conclusion of his remarks Phipps stated: 

“The challenges the Jockey Club faces are really collective challenges that every organization in this room faces.

  • We all must protect the Thoroughbred breed.
  • We all must ensure the integrity of our sport
  • We all must respond to competition form other gaming and entertainment activities
  • We all must safeguard the welfare of our horses, even after their racing and breeding careers have ended.

I last attended the IFHA annual Conference in 2011 when I had the honor of speaking at the event. While the acronym groups in Thoroughbred racing seem endless, I believe that the IFHA, through its various international members, is addressing and attempting to solve the more complicated issues facing our sport around the globe. I encourage anyone seriously interested in the future of Thoroughbred racing to engage and support its important international initiatives.

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