Vet Ramlal calls for strong measures to tackle use of 'illegal' medication in horse racing
Dr Sophia Ramlal of the Jamaica Racing Commission administers a vaccination.

Dr Sophia Ramlal, senior veterinarian for the Jamaica Racing Commission (JRC), says the use of 'illegal' medications to mask pain in horses is extremely dangerous for the animals.

Drug usage in horse racing is believed to be widespread, and being the high-stakes sport that it is, some trainers will go to any length to give their horse an advantage, and in many cases not taking the health of the animal into consideration.

"Racehorses are athletes and, as such, will need medication to keep them healthy and allow them to perform optimally," Dr Ramlal told the Jamaica Observer.

"The illegal use of medication to deliberately alter racing outcome [positively or negatively] is unsafe, unfair, and unethical.

Dr Sophia Ramlal and racing secretary Denzil Miller chat in the winners’ enclosure.

"It undermines the overall integrity of racing, and as such, punters, owners, jockeys, grooms, and the racing public are all worse off when a horse's performance is artificially altered by the use of prohibited medications," Dr Ramlal further stated.

She also noted that drugs administered to horses should always be veterinarian-prescribed and licensed for usage in horses specifically.

"Painkillers are the most common illegal substances used in horse racing. Medications that impact the muscular, respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems are also often detected. For example, clenbuterol, lidocaine, ephedrine, anabolic steroids, and blood builders.

"There are medications that have no therapeutic or preventative uses in racing horses and are therefore banned at all times; for example, central nervous stimulants or depressants, cocaine, morphine, and blood doping agents, and so horses should not be given medications without veterinary approval," Dr Ramlal said.

While the use of certain classes of drugs under the rules of racing is permitted, the question remains: Is this in the best interest of the horse?

The general rule is that on the day of racing, all horses must be clean of any prohibited substances, though they may be used in training.

"Most medications are not allowed in horses on race days, and only a few are allowed to be found on race days, but must be below established thresholds; examples of these are Lasix and dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO)," Dr Ramlal noted.

"[One], medications approved for horses will fall into different categories, including, but not limited to, medication for preventing/minimising diseases such as vaccines, probiotics, dewormers, nutritional supplements, and Lasix.

"Two, medications to treat diseases [like] antibiotics, painkillers, joint supplements or infusions, decongestants, and antihistamines.

"And three, medication to facilitate surgical procedures or restrain them; for example, sedatives/anesthetics," Dr Ramlal added.

Nonetheless, all treatments can cause negative effects, and Dr Ramlal recommends that horsemen notify of any side effects so that the veterinarians can review and make alternative recommendations.

"So if a horse has a fever or colic, then medicines such as 'bute' and 'banamine' will help to reduce the fever and pain. Horses with bacterial infections will often need antibiotics to help clear the infection.

"However, all medications can have side effects, and so the same 'bute' that reduces pain in a horse with arthritis and colic can result in stomach ulcers if not given properly. Similarly, overusing antibiotics or using the wrong antibiotic can lead to worsening infections or diarrhoea, for example.

"Inappropriate antibiotic use is of growing concern internationally, in both human and veterinary medicine, because this inappropriate use has created antibiotic resistance, which means it is becoming more difficult to treat some infections successfully.

"Horsemen should always seek veterinary advice on the need for antibiotics in their horses. The practice of routinely 'cleaning out' horses with a few days of Bactrim in a generic way, as is often done, is not recommended, strategic or even cost-effective in many instances. Get veterinary advice before using antibiotics on horses," Dr Ramlal said.

Although large-scale prevention may be difficult to achieve, Dr Ramlal suggested that authorities consider introducing more observational methods aimed at tracing the activities of those participating in the sport in order to stop the use of illegal substances.

"I would recommend improving stable/track monitoring to detect illegal practices and unauthorised persons through the appointment of a racing investigator as well as the installation of more cameras in stables, holding paddocks, and saddling areas.

"Also, improving security at the stables and track/restricting access to licensed persons only, as well as continuing education seminars for trainers, owners, and grooms on medication policies," Dr Ramlal proposed.

She added: "Authorities should conduct consistent raids in collaboration with the police to seize prohibited substances and remove prohibited persons. The reactivation of the security tribunal, as well as the faster turnaround time for drug testing results, are also effective.

"Implement harsher penalties for medication violations, as well as out-of-competition and hair testing. All of these can help in the fight against illegal pharmaceutical use."

BY RUDDY ALLEN Staff reporter ruddya@jamaicaobserver.com

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