June 4, 2008, 3:42 pm
Drugs and Racehorses
By SID GUSTAFSON
Phenylbutazone seemed a miracle drug when the stuff began entering the bloodstreams of racehorses in the 1960s. I was collecting the post-race urine that concentrated the metabolites of that drug during the ’60s, and as a teenager I became acutely aware of drugs and racehorses.
What a soothing anti-inflammatory effect bute brought to racehorses in those simpler days when its use first became widespread. The alleviation of certain lamenesses was dramatic. “Really sweet stuff,” I remember Wright Haggerty’s Kentucky groom telling me on the Shelby, Montana, backside in 1965 as he pestelled up tiny white 100-milligram dog pills he had received from my father, the attending and regulatory veterinarian (thus my job as urine catcher). The original medical plan, being that most racing jurisdictions back then prohibited the use of any and all drugs, was to use bute for training. The groom mixed the white powder into a mash, and fed his eager and waiting racehorse, who trained like Seabiscuit the next morning.
Bute cools hot joints and quiets inflamed tendons to desirable medical effect, allowing horses to return to training and racing sooner than otherwise, allowing them to maintain their conditioning. Tight, cool legs and hooves are necessary to continue conditioning the racehorse. If there is excess fluid in a joint, or swelling within a hoof, conditioning is generally counterproductive as further inflammation and damage follow exercise.
Bute was first used to facilitate continued training by quieting certain injuries or inflammations, and was especially effective when used conscientiously and conservatively. In a certain sense and in compassionate, knowing hands the drug provided humane relief to the rigors of racehorse life. The question quickly became: Could bute enhance performance? It was not a question for long. The answer was yes. Bute was and is the cleanest boost ever for a horse with mild inflammation in need of relief. The stuff could move a horse up, as they say, without a mental, or stimulant effect, but with an anti-inflammatory effect.
Two horses being equal, however, bute generally won’t make a horse with quieted inflammation run faster than a horse without joint, bone, or tendon inflammation. In a sense, bute restores normal overall biomechanical function. The nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug takes the heat out of mildly inflamed legs, feet, and joints, and this can be good in considerate hands.
Bute also became useful in the sense that it was diagnostic, or so the mind-set went at the time. If you administered bute and your horse went back to training and eating and being a sound horse after laming up a bit, then it was concluded that the condition was not significant enough to warrant rest, only to warrant bute. Bute, then, could be used to assess the severity of the lameness in racehorses. Some did not consider bute-responsive conditions serious, and this is one line of reasoning that eventually allowed the legalization of bute. There were medical arguments for its use in racing horses, medical arguments made by veterinarians and drug companies.
The conditions that bute administration does not resolve or effectively manage are considered problematic, and those conditions generally warrant rest, rather than more intensive treatment. Today, however, if bute does not manage the condition, more intense treatments are used, and more intense drugs are used.
Rest is the oldest and most effective treatment for lameness. In the history of horse doctoring, no treatment is more effective. The horse has a tremendous potential to heal musculoskeletal injuries if returned to natural pasture conditions, grazing the plains with herdmates. The problem is that it takes a full year of rest to cure many conditions racehorses develop, and at least months for others. No one has time to rest racehorses, to wait a year, and then take eight months to recondition the horse. With racehorses the clock is ticking, fast. If drugs can save time with racehorses, they are used for just that. And that is the case these days. The industry has transcended bute. The monthly veterinary bills at Belmont and Aqueduct often exceed the monthly training fee. Ask any owner.
If conditions are diagnosed accurately and thoroughly, and drugs are dosed properly and administered in a timely manner, doctors can reduce problematic inflammation in a given leg or joint, which in turn protects the rest of the horse by minimizing the risk of extra strain on other joints and limbs to compensate for the painful injured joint. However carefully dosed and administered, however, this brand of racehorse sports medicine puts more pressure on the weakened, and now treated joint, and herein lies the danger. In addition to systemic medication given intravenously to treat joint inflammation, cortisone is injected directly into joints and tendon sheaths to get a significant anti-inflammatory effect. Cortisone is in a different class of drugs called steroids, which can be used more specifically than bute to reduce the inflammation in a specific joint.
When there is swelling in a joint or tendon sheath, excess synovial fluid is secreted, distending the joint structures, and in some cases, deforming them, making for irregular movement. The reason for excess fluid in a joint is most often damage to the sensitive joint structures; damage to the synovial membranes, articular cartilages, ligaments, tendons, and underlying bone, any or all of the above. Damaged joints are weakened joints. They are inflamed joints, and in racehorses, many become cortisone-injected joints: weakened joints that are quieted down with cortisone. Why? Horse joints need to flow smoothly. Imagine an abraded joint surface, or a tendon that loses its lubrication as is passes over a running, moving joint, the resultant pain, swelling, inflammation, increased friction, and impaired function. If there is rough movement in one joint, the roughness is relayed throughout the horse’s musculoskeletal system, increasing the burden on the other legs and joints.
Intra-articular injection of a joint with cortisone is a potent treatment. In certain veterinarians hands it can be used beautifully. The most commonly injected joint is the fetlock, which is also the most commonly fractured joint. The reality is that most of fractured joints were cortisoned joints, although this information is inaccessible because of medical confidentiality. Bute is less intense, less potent, and a more conservative, safer remedy. The original idea was that legalized bute would replace joint injections, or that was part of the intent. That has not been the case.
Phenylbutazone, or bute, abbreviated from the early popular brand Butazolodin, is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug very similar to aspirin. Those who understand the pharmaceutical principles of aspirin understand phenylbutazone. Bute reduces inflammation, and subsequent to that, pain. That is the sequence, anti-inflammatory first, with subsequent pain relief. As a result of reduced inflammation, there is restoration of function accompanying relief of the joint pain.
If you consider aspirin a painkiller, then I suppose you can consider bute one, as well. Bute lasts longer, a day or two, while aspirin is more quickly metabolized in the horse, a matter of hours. The sustained anti-inflammatory effect of bute is especially therapeutic to horses. Prolonged anti-inflammatory relief allows the interdependent musculoskeletal system of the horse to redistribute weight appropriately. Lameness anywhere imbalances the horse. In a sense, bute can improve the balance by providing anti-inflammatory relief of the inflamed parts.
Initially, drugs for racehorses being illegal, bute was used to facilitate training and not so much enhance racing. That came next. The medication got to working pretty darn good, and in time trainers began administering bute to their horses closer and closer to racing, and soon the testing folk started picking it up. Matt Lytle was one trainer who taught me about bute, the smile it put on his face until Croff Lake, one of his horses, suffered a bad test after winning the Oilfield Handicap in Shelby, Montana, one of those years in the mid-’60s. Lost his purse and sort of soiled his reputation all because of a shade of bute in the urine.
Later, I heard him defend the drug, and his use of it: he gave it for the horses well-being, he claimed, and knowing Matt and his connection to his horses, I did not doubt his intent and compassion. Pain relief is compassionate, especially the sort of racehorse pain relief bute provided. The problem today is that a good thing, bute, or medication in general, has been taken too far. In the passion of competition and in a world of big money, horses have become victims of a misguided pharmaceutical culture.
My dad, having dispensed the bute, sampled Matt’s horse after it won the Oilfield Handicap. I was the one who caught Croff Lake’s urine, which tested positive. Then the next spring a winning horse tested positive in the Kentucky Derby. Rather than further restrict drug use to remedy the situation, the industry legalized drugs. From that time, horse racing shifted from a covert medication culture to an overt medication culture, which has been recently brought to its knees.
After hundreds of other doping incidents, there came a general consensus that if so many felt the need to use bute, maybe it should be O.K. to run on. After all, it was only a type of aspirin. And perhaps its legalization would eliminate the need for other more abrasive medications, such as opiates and amphetamines, and local anesthetics. Some even thought it would reduce the urge to administer intra-articular injections of cortisone. Not the case.
By the time I graduated from vet school and began practicing at Playfair Racecourse in the late ’70s, I could legally treat racehorses with nearly everything except stimulants, opiates or depressants. That left a lot of anti-inflammatory drugs, antihistamines, hormones, steroids and bleeding medications to administer to running racehorses, not to mention a multitude of vitamins, amino acids and minerals thought to help a horse endure the rigors of confinement training and racing.
Now virtually all racehorses run on bute and Lasix, and now with too many fractured fetlocks the medication has to be reduced. Bute wasn’t enough. No drug is. Legal bute engendered a drug culture. The ideology that more conservative use of potent medications would follow legalization of bute did not prove up. More intense drugs and medical treatments followed, rather than less. The pharmaceutical adaptability of the racehorse has been exceeded. Horse racing has to wean itself from its addiction to drugs that no longer help, but instead weaken horses. Racing jurisdictions are in the process of rolling back drug use. The trend should continue as a part of the remedy to reduce breakdowns. Foreign horse racing jurisdictions run without medication, and their safety records are better than the United States’. Horses running clean are less likely to break down than those running on medication.
Sid Gustafson is a novelist, social commentator, and former thoroughbred attending and examining veterinarian licensed in New York, Washington, and Montana, where he has had significant experience in the regulation of racehorses, especially as it pertains to soundness and breakdowns.