Violette: Progress on U.S. medication reform must be acknowledged

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Richard A. Violette, Jr., a New York-based trainer for more than 30 years, is president of the national Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (THA) and a major proponent of the National Uniform Medication Program, which attempts to standardize United States racing jurisdictions’ varying veterinary medication policies while introducing guidelines that better protect the horses.

At a time when a number of prominent owners and trainers are calling for elimination of race-day furosemide, individually and through the Water Hay Oats Alliance, Violette has been among those insisting that Lasix and other medications have a place at the racetrack for horses’ health. He’s also been an outspoken critic of The Jockey Club’s proposal that the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) take over racetrack drug testing, and of those who call for federal oversight of horse racing.

“The federal government scares the bejeezus out of me,” said Violette, 61. “They get things wrong at least half the time. Putting our fate into their hands is absolutely frightening.”

The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC), the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI), and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) have all backed the uniformity initiative, which has been fully adopted in seven states: Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Virginia. Seven other states, including New York, are in the process of adopting the program, and racing commissions in another six states – including the major racing jurisdictions of California, Illinois, and Kentucky – have passed the program’s rules, a necessary early step toward adoption.

“We’re well on our way to accomplishing this work,” Violette said. “It was delayed by the anti-Lasix position, and if there was federal intervention, we’d be waiting another decade to get it done. This progress needs to be acknowledged, and the states that need a kick in the butt to get it done should get a kick in the butt.”

Before turning his attention to the racetrack, Violette was a show rider on the hunter-jumper circuit. He saddled his first winner in 1978 in his native Massachusetts. He opened a public stable in 1983. Since then, his runners have included stakes winners Dream Rush, Man from Wicklow, Nijinsky’s Gold, High Finance, and New York-bred champion juvenile Read the Footnotes. This season, his stable includes dual Grade 3 winner Samraat, whom he trains for Leonard Riggio’s My Meadowview Farm.

Glenye Cain Oakford interviewed Violette on June 3.

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You have your eyes and hands on horses every day at the racetrack. Why do you think medications are necessary?

“I think therapeutic medications are necessary, because the horses are athletes. Therapeutic medications are part of daily life of non-athlete humans, from a daily regimen of aspirin to heaven-knows-what humans take. There are horses turned out 24/7 that require different medications. Your dog needs medication, your pet cat gets worming medication. I think it’s kind of a trigger word – medication automatically means abuse. That’s a shame; it’s naive to think we could put athletes in training and there aren’t measures that we need, whether it’s for treatment of ulcers or treatment for tying up, to take the best care of them. Medication can and often does improve the quality of life.”

Do you think that at least some medication reform is necessary? You certainly have backed some level of reform through your work with the THA.

“It’s not some level; it’s a huge amount of reform, and I think it’s been marginalized, and the initiative hasn’t been given credit for the intended and real impact that it’s having. The uniform medication initiative is something that entities have talked about for decades, and it is happening, from the East Coast to the West Coast. And while things never move as quickly as we would like them to – some jurisdictions need legislation, others need model rule changes or different public comment periods – there’s a good-faith commitment by jurisdictions that represent 88 percent of the national handle to adopt these medication reforms.

“Embedded in these reforms are lower acceptable levels of painkillers, moving withdrawal times farther away from race day with corticosteroids and NSAIDs [non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs] so that the pharmacological effect not only isn’t there on race day, it isn’t present when the veterinarians are inspecting the horses in the morning to make sure they’re sound enough to compete in the afternoon. That was a significant step. The veterinarians wanted to make sure that what they were seeing in the morning was a good representation of a horse’s soundness in the afternoon.

“These medication reforms also basically take clenbuterol [a bronchial dilator] out of the game. Now, unless you’re using it for the purpose that it was intended, on a sick horse or a horse with significant lung issues, you don’t have it in the barn because it’s not a daily tool.

“In New York, while we’re still crossing the t’s and putting the dots on the i’s on some of the medication reform, we’ve had these guidelines in place for about 18 months, and the catastrophic loss rate has dropped by 40 percent. We’re way below the national average and better than most of the synthetic racetracks.

“There’s a real upside to these medication reforms. We’re seeing it in New York. That’s why I get my back up a little bit when the reforms get marginalized, just because they don’t include a ban on Lasix. The anti-Lasix crowd either ignore the progress or marginalize it as if it’s insignificant, and I think that’s irresponsible. These changes are protecting horses and riders.”

A lot of people have the perception that the testing isn’t good enough or that the punishments for violations aren’t strong enough, that the cheaters either don’t get caught or don’t get a significant enough punishment. Do you think that the testing system – particularly given the budget problems many states have faced in recent years – is robust enough to catch people?

“It is, but it always needs to get better. Standing still isn’t good enough. In any industry, there’s always somebody trying to get an edge, whether it’s racing, sports, Wall Street, or your doctor’s office and Medicaid. There are cheaters in all walks of life. But we are addressing the problem. One of the reforms included in the uniformity program is the mandatory accreditation of laboratories. The standard is very high; it conforms to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code. There’s also a quality-assurance program – labs have to maintain that high standard. The goal is that all of our labs will be accredited, and the labs that can’t find a basketball in a swimming pool won’t be doing work in the racing industry. Another significant part of the reform program is trying to keep labs state of the art. It’s like buying an iPhone: soon it’s obsolete, so you’re always trying to upgrade.

“There’s no question that different states have different constraints because of budgeting. In New York, the New York horsemen have been very aggressive in supplementing the state’s budget for testing, first at Cornell [University] and now at the facility at Morrisville. The New York horsemen bought the equipment so they could test for anabolic steroids when the ban came out; it was a half-million-dollar piece of equipment that we still maintain and insure.” 

You pointed to the horsemen stepping up to foot some of the bill in New York. That could be seen as positive on the one hand, but on the other hand it also suggests the piecemeal nature of regulations as they exist now. Given the budgetary problems that many states have, it seems very difficult to ensure uniformity if not all states can afford all the same testing. What’s your response to having a single nationwide testing protocol administered by a national-level entity such as the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA)? 

“The budget wouldn’t be cheaper for USADA. I think that the program we’re pressing for, the accreditation process, will consolidate the number of labs and greatly improve testing for the industry. I think there is significant progress out there without completely reinventing the wheel. I have no confidence in one group or the federal government getting it right.”

How would a state-by-state program of the kind you’re working on smooth out the differences in various states’ abilities to pay for testing?

“You’ve got to get the money from somewhere; going nationally isn’t going to all of a sudden make it free. It’s just not realistic. I do think if we end up with half a dozen or 10 labs or whatever the number is, and pump the nation’s racing testing into those labs, there will be some economy of scale. And whether it’s racetracks or horsemen’s groups or states, I think you have to re-evaluate your investment in racing. We need to do research and be aggressive to counter anything new, whether it’s gene-doping or something else. There’s no question that we need funding, but I think consolidation and accreditation will help, and we’re not going to waste money on laboratories that aren’t up to the task.” 

Where would you want to see that money come from?

“I’d like to take some of it off the top of handle. We certainly need the investment. Handicappers, or handicapping groups, are the first ones to rail about catching cheaters. Taking it off the top of handle pulls in all players, and the ratios are already built in: So much goes to the racetrack, so much goes to the state, so much goes back to the horseplayers, so much goes to the horsemen. When you start dealing off the top of handle, you only need a small percentage to accumulate significant funds to be aggressive on the testing front. If you want a level playing field and a product that you can have confidence in, you also should be willing to invest in it.”

Why do you think there has been so much focus on Lasix, when there obviously are other drugs in use at the racetrack?

“It becomes irrational. The Jockey Club, the Grayson Foundation, funded an absolute gold-standard study in South Africa. When the information coming out of the study wasn’t to their liking, they attacked their own study. They wanted the science done, but when the results were not what they expected, all of a sudden it became junk science. 

“There is an obligation to maintain the best health possible. We have a vehicle for that with regard to bleeding, and it’s Lasix. If football had a medication that could eliminate concussions in some of the players, could minimize the damage or reduce the frequency in others, that medication would be mandatory.

“The similarities between concussions in football and bleeding in horse racing are incredible. They both affect major organs, the brain and the lungs. The damage can be very subtle to fatal. The best way to diagnose both is with modern technology.

“The other thing that concussions and EIPH [exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage] share is they both scar the organ, and small incidents become larger incidents. Time off does not mean that they can come back and become a non-bleeder or [in football] that they’re not going to get a concussion. The fact is, once you’ve had one concussion, you’re more prone to have other concussions, and the same with bleeding: once you’ve bled, you’re much more prone to bleed again.

“No longer is it acceptable in football to have a player drunkenly stumble off the field and answer, ‘Sunday,’ when asked how many fingers he sees, and then the coach says, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s got a concussion, he can’t go back in.’ Football has stepped up their research, they have aggressive protocols now, and their testing has come into the 21st century. It’s a responsible approach. I’m sure there are old football players who say, ‘Ah, it’s much ado about nothing.’ But that attitude isn’t acceptable, [and] it’s no longer acceptable to wait for a horse to bleed through the nose to say, ‘Yeah, he’s a bleeder, he needs to stop racing or he needs time off.’

“But we seem to be going in opposite directions: Football is getting very proactive and acting responsibly, yet we still have those who say, ‘In the good old days, we didn’t need Lasix, the horses didn’t bleed.’ We’re being asked to dummy down diagnostics, and to say that on a one-to-four scale [rating the severity of EIPH], the ones are insignificant. Well, the ones aren’t insignificant. The ones become twos, and the twos become threes. There’s a group in racing that wants us to turn a blind eye to that, who say that the one-out-of-four doesn’t affect performance. Well, I think that position is pretty reprehensible. We’re not supposed to wait until it affects performance. We’re supposed to be better than that and address issues before they affect performance. Performance shouldn’t be part of the equation. It’s about the health and well-being of the horse.” 

How do you respond to those who say Lasix can be used to mask illegal drugs?

“That’s an easy one. That’s a bald-faced lie. Anybody saying that is in total denial. Maybe that was 20 years ago, when testing was fairly rudimentary. Today, we test using both urine and plasma, and Lasix has zero effect on the blood at any time – zero. We administer Lasix four hours out; the first hour or so there is a diuresis effect, but by the time they’re tested, it’s closer to five hours out, and any potential masking effect is long past. The scientists have said it, the chemists have confirmed it. And, with the national reform we have enhanced the security by requiring third-party administration of Lasix.”

Do you accept that allowing race-day medication causes a public perception problem? Some also would say that the uniform medication program, by allowing certain levels, even low levels, of more than 20 medications contributes to a public perception problem that these horses require lots of drugs to be able to run. What’s your response?

“The presentation that it takes 24 medications to race a horse is intentionally inflammatory. The 24 medications have specific testing levels and recommended withdrawal times. The bute [phenylbutazone] rules – just to throw it out there – are the same in California as they are in New York. But just because there are clear definitions of when and how much of these medications can be used before a race doesn’t mean that everybody’s using all 24 of these medications on each horse.” 

 You said earlier that you think there is some public perception problem. How would you describe the perception problem?

“A lot of it comes from within. In basketball, [Dallas Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban is very outspoken. But he gets fined a half a million dollars if he questions a referee’s call publicaly in the heat of the moment. In the league setting, he could never go out there and say, ‘The draft is fixed, the players are shaving points, the referees are betting on the games.’ He’d lose his franchise. In pro sports, when they want to consider rule changes, they have a rules committee. Owners are on board, players are on board, as are the coaches. They talk about it, the rules committee votes, they make a decision. Whether it’s minor or major, there’s some grumbling, but the season starts and they move on.

“We’ve had our committee meetings on Lasix. The RCI, the RMTC, the AAEP, all the states’ gaming commissions or state racing and wagering boards. They’ve all met, they’ve had presentations, and there’s been no real traction on getting rid of Lasix. Now, in the league setting, you move on. You’re not allowed to then go on and campaign and denigrate and carpet-bomb the industry and call trainers cheaters and call trainers addicted to medication and blaspheme the industry because you didn’t get the particular rule change you petitioned for.” 

Is this where you think the perception problem comes from?

“You betcha. When The Jockey Club speaks, people say, ‘Wow, The Jockey Club says that, it must be true.’ We’ve created our own problem. I have no issue with difference of opinion. But I am very tired, even if it’s well-intentioned people, of those who are willing to inflict material damage and bring the industry they supposedly love to its knees so that they can get their own way. That conduct would not be tolerated in a league setting. 

“I’m not that concerned about PETA. We know what they are. The New York Times, again, they are what they are. There’s a lot of sensationalism, sound bites and highly edited film, whether it’s HBO or “60 Minutes” or PETA. They’re in show business, and they do a very good job of it. My biggest concerns are the industry insiders who seem to somehow think it’s okay for them to add to the rhetoric and even aid and abet the enemy a little bit in order to move their own agenda. I think it’s very short-sighted.”

But the public has already heard this debate, seen the news stories such as The New York Times’ series on medications and breakdowns. If those stories and the things anti-Lasix proponents don’t describe your reality, what would you like the public to know about your reality?

“The reality is that most trainers out there cherish the horses that provide us a livelihood. It is in our best interest to take good care of them and to add longevity to their careers. I do think we need to do a better job of showing people how much care is involved with these horses. And, as an industry, we are aggressively moving forward in raising the standards of not only the application of medication but also the testing of medication. With uniform medications, we’ve seen real progress in a safer environment in New York, saving the lives of the horses and the jockeys who ride them. We take this very seriously.” 

Give the public some context. Someone looks on the medications allowed under the uniform medication program, and they see mepivacaine. It’s a local anesthetic. What do want to tell the public about why a horse might need it and why it’s allowed?

“A horse might have something as simple as a boil or pimple on its back, and it can alleviate the pain. A horse has a cut in his mouth and isn’t eating well, you take the pain away, and, geez, he’s eating and feeling better. There are legitimate applications for those medications, but the ones that have a serious impact on pain-killing are the ones that have longer withdrawal times. Mepivacaine is a serious drug, and you can’t give it anywhere close enough to a race for it to have a pharmacological effect. When you use it, right away you know you can’t run the horse for at least three days.” 

Does it concern you that the United States’ current medication policy isolates us from the international racing community, as illustrated last month by some of the presenters at the Asian Racing Conference who were highly critical of U. S. racing?

“It’s easy to point fingers at the U.S. The theme of the conference was: ‘What’s going on? We’re losing customers, we’re losing the young crowd.’ The problem has been the economy, not medication. Since 2008, the foal crop has shrunk world-wide, and people got out of the business or reduced their impact in the business. They didn’t stop buying horses over here because of medication, they stopped because they didn’t have the money to invest. The investment that Europeans and the international groups have made in purchasing horses in the U.S. is still very significant. And when the European horses come for the Breeders’ Cup, the litany of medications they give isn’t virgin-like. The preparations that they ask veterinarians to give their horses before their breezes and when they’re going into the race is enlightening. The ‘we’re doing it because they’re doing it’ [idea]? Well, they seem to have huge experience with what they’re doing. I think there’s a lack of real honesty, because it’s much easier to point a finger and say, ‘Those horrible Americans.’”

What improvements to the medication system in the U.S. would you like to see?

“Uniformity would be huge, there’s no question. The accreditation of labs is key. And one thing we didn’t touch on was the multiple violations system. One of our biggest criticisms is that we don’t punish the violators enough. [With the multiple medication violation program], the more you break the rules, the bigger the penalty. It could be another 30 days, another 60 days, another year, depending on the medication. Repeat offenders will be held to the standard that they deserve. If they’re penalized out of the game, so be it. That’s something that we certainly have to go after aggressively. At some stage, horses shouldn’t just be able to be transplanted to an assistant trainer or family member. All of those things are on the table.

“There is a comprehensive effort not only to raise the quality of testing, raise the level of responsibility, and make it a safer environment for the horse and rider, but also to take care of the horses once they’ve stopped racing. There are lots of good stories out there, and I do wish that a number of people in the industry would start concentrating on those and stop with the innuendoes and stop marginalizing the real progress. It’s not just some progress, it’s historic. It has real meaning. Lowering the catastrophic rate 40 percent is nothing to sneeze at. We still have a ways to go. The goal is to make things even better. But it’s a huge start, and the fact that people aren’t acknowledging it does the industry real damage.” 

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