Three Years In, North American Association Of Racetrack Vets Maintains Critical Approach To Medication Reform

Medication reform in Thoroughbred racing has long been an alphabet soup. There's the ARCI (Association of Racing Commissioners International), the RMTC (Racing Medication and Testing Consortium), the AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners), and more recently, the HSUS (Humane Society of the United States), among other organizations stirring the kettle. The past three years, one more alphabet group has added its cry to the cacophony of people arguing over what they believe is best for the Thoroughbred: the NAARV (North American Association of Racetrack Veterinarians) was founded in 2014 as a part-networking group, part-advocacy watchdog for the on-track practitioner.

“If I could distill one thing that NAARV is about, it's that we really are interested in providing really good healthcare for horses, and to make sure that our clients and our patients are protected, that they don't have aberrant positive tests because we don't have information,” said Dr. Andy Roberts, a NAARV board member and racetrack practitioner in Kentucky specializing in Standardbreds.

Why the need for two groups representing equine veterinarians? Roberts traces the group's origins to a general feeling that the AAEP no longer represented the views of some members whose practices were entirely racetrack-based.

“Even though AAEP was founded by racetrack veterinarians, they've become something of a minority,” said Roberts, speaking to the Paulick Report in the presence of NAARV's attorney, per the organization's request. “Sometimes it's a little bit difficult to get your voice heard in a really big room.”

Founded in 1954, the AAEP includes practitioners from all equine sports and is about 9,300 strong. It's not clear how many official members NAARV has. Roberts said full members are not required to pay dues, so he isn't sure how many there are, but the group's email listserv numbers around 250. NAARV's website lists 18 members on a board of directors (business filings with the Kentucky Secretary of State list six) and the  website's  “events” section has not been updated since March 2016. The NAARV Facebook page has no postings since June 2016.

NAARV members originally found themselves at odds with the AAEP after the organization announced its support of third-party furosemide administration. Some practitioners interpreted the model rule as facilitating distrust of racetrack veterinarians and believed it served to separate horses from the practitioners who know them best. Many members also have a problem with the National Uniform Medication Program, which is constructed by the RMTC.

“The one thing at AAEP that I think probably really is a separation between AAEP and NAARV is AAEP has taken a position RMTC is the ultimate and final source for guidance on medication,” Roberts said. “I could have lived with that at one time, but I don't think it's been properly managed, so I think we need to have a more holistic approach.”

Roberts and others in NAARV believe the studies used to develop RMTC guidelines are based on drug administrations or doses that are too different from their practical use to be helpful. An unknown number of NAARV members have felt so strongly about these issues that they left the AAEP, although some have since rejoined. From Roberts' personal perspective, there is a mood of respect or at least “agreeing to disagree” between NAARV and AAEP members.

Dr. Andy Roberts

Dr. Andy Roberts

“It's not us and them,” said Roberts, who is also part of the AAEP's racing committee. “Our current president [at NAARV] is Nick Meittinis, and he was previously on the [AAEP] racing committee. There are members of NAARV who have left the AAEP because they feel like the AAEP was not responding to their concerns. I have a different take on that personally. I'm a ‘work from inside' kind of guy.”

Dr. Jeff Blea, past president of the AAEP, said he wasn't aware of a mass exodus of veterinarians from AAEP to NAARV.

“To my knowledge, one member recently abandoned his AAEP membership because of our support of a 48-hour NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) recommendation,” said Blea. “According to staff, we have not noticed any decrease in the number of racing members within the AAEP.”

NAARV has raised objections to a number of RMTC-advised drug thresholds, withdrawal times, and other reforms by sending representatives to commission meetings and other industry gatherings around the country. Members have spoken at the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and ARCI national meetings, voicing concern about the validity of suggested withdrawal times and questioning whether therapeutic drug regulations hobble veterinarians in the course of legitimate treatment of horses. The group has also sounded the alarm about environmental contamination, suggesting positive drug tests could be inadvertently caused by anything from drugs lurking in horses' bedding to human anti-depressants in city drinking water.

This standpoint often puts NAARV at odds with reform advocates, and Roberts said he's aware that as the public demands uniformity and reform, NAARV's stance doesn't necessarily endear it to fans.

“There's this aura around certain folks at NAARV that we're opposed to uniformity. That's as false as it possibly could be,” he said. “I think we're in favor of uniformity, but as always, the devil's in the details. Do we want to be uniformly right or uniformly wrong?

“Perhaps with some of these things, we do have to have tougher medication rules. The question is getting it right, and I don't think that anybody benefits when we get it wrong. The only people that win when the regulators get it wrong is the lawyers.”

A large part of NAARV's focus has been funding its own studies into hot-button medications, including dexamethasone, methylprednisolone (Depo Medrol), betamethasone, dantrolene, and mepivacaine. A recently-completed study by Dr. Thomas Tobin of the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center has been submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, according to Roberts, and NAARV's goal is to submit all its studies to such academic publications.

The real problem in racing, Roberts believes, is not therapeutic drugs, and it's probably not veterinarians. It's a few bad seeds looking for any substance they can find to get ahead (including those frequenting sketchy online drug outlets or compounders, as we've detailed at the Paulick Report).

Unfortunately, Roberts said, the wars of the alphabet soup organizations over therapeutic drugs only serve to give racing a bad reputation – especially when trainers like Bill Mott and Graham Motion (and their veterinarians) have their names sullied by drug positives.

“The ‘miracle trainers,' whatever their miracle is, it's not coming off my truck or I'd have 20 miracle trainers,” said Roberts. “Certainly, I think, we're supportive of horse racing really looking into things that really hurt the business.”

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