Change in Store for Kentucky Equine Drug Research?

A campaign to bring about changes in equine drug research in Kentucky has spilled over into the public and political arenas with a call for legislative action.

The Kentucky Equine Drug Council began a fight more than a year ago for the right to spend its money for out-of-state research and consultants. The drug council, which falls under the auspices of the Kentucky Racing Commission, encountered roadblocks in the form of legal opinions, one from the commission's attorney who said state statute clearly requires the money to remain in Kentucky.

The drug council, funded by a percentage of pari-mutuel handle in Kentucky, has about $785,000 in its 2003 budget. The mandate that ties council members' hands on who they can hire to carry out research is considered counterproductive and frustrating by at least several members of the panel.

Though out-of-state entities--Truesdail Laboratories in California for several years, and currently Iowa State University--have won the racing commission's equine drug-testing contract, the University of Kentucky Gluck Equine Research Center, with projects usually spearheaded by Dr. Thomas Tobin, has carried out research for the racing commission and drug council.

The drug council last year hired Dr. Richard Sams of Ohio State University to serve as a consultant, though Sams still hasn't been paid because of the language in the statute. At a drug council meeting Jan. 10, he was instructed to begin a review of the "performance and productivity" of the UK laboratory under Tobin's direction.

The project will cost $25,000, though where the money will come from isn't known given the statutory limitations. An ad hoc committee of scientific experts in equine pharmacology, analytical chemistry, and quality assurance will review Tobin's work. Consultants' fees of $12,500 and travel expenses of $9,000 make up most of the project's budget.

Sams prepared a lengthy document that includes eight categories (staff, facilities, health and safety, specimens, equipment and instrumentation, methods, quality control, and records) and hundreds of questions that look at everything from ventilation to storage of specimens.

As part of the laboratory assessment project, Sams and the committee will review the productivity of the lab from 1997-2002; determine whether lab activities are consistent with the goals of the drug council; evaluate the education, training, and competency of lab staff; examine review procedures for research proposals; and assess whether there are "substantive conflict of interest issues."

Tobin, a pharmacologist, has assisted Kentucky regulators for years, and also has served as a consultant for the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and the Kentucky HBPA. He is largely responsible for much of the research that went into the National HBPA's proposed model medication policy for the United States.

Supporters of Tobin's research have privately called the drug council's pursuits a witch-hunt given the fact his work already is subject to peer review. Others say oversight of work performed by the UK lab is a reasonable if not necessary objective given Kentucky's recent push to be recognized as a leader in equine medication and drug-testing policy.

"Research needs to be done in Kentucky, but that doesn't mean consulting can't be done by people from outside the state," Drug Council member Ned Bonnie said during the Jan. 10 drug council meeting. "Are we going to say, therefore, that UK has to review itself? Not likely. That would be such a serious conflict of interest that it would be laughable."

In follow-up comments, Bonnie said there is "no evidence" of a vendetta against Tobin. He said he statute calls for the drug council to review equine drug research performed by UK with state money. Tobin just happens to work for UK, he said.

"How does that get personalized?" Bonnie said. "This is the duty of the drug council, and since 1982, it hasn't been done. If we're charged with the responsibility, we must do it. The proposal by Rick Sams is to approach it in a business-like fashion."

Bonnie also said that, given the fact the "national picture on drug testing and research isn't very good," Kentucky has a responsibility to spend wisely the council's $785,000, an amount that makes up a good percentage of the money available nationally for such research.

Robert Stallings, a racing commissioner who chairs the drug council, said the panel merely wants information to complement the work done by Tobin. He recently told the racing commission the council needed short-term funding to continue initiatives Tobin began last year.

There have long been whispers in the industry about the competition and personality conflicts between chemists, pharmacologists, and veterinarians in the area of equine drug research. Various regulatory agencies and horsemen's groups have different advisors whose research or opinions sometimes clash.

The National HBPA, a longtime Tobin patron, credits him for his work on regulatory thresholds and withdrawal times for therapeutic medication, among other things. Tobin has received tens of thousands of dollars from the HBPA for research, and his name appears on National HBPA letterhead as an advisor.

"He has heightened our awareness to an amazing degree about positives that really weren't positives...they were nothing but trace levels of therapeutic medication," said Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida HBHA and chairman of the National HBPA medication committee. "Without him doing research, lab directors would be running the country. We were in the dark ages, and there are a lot of lab directors that would like to keep us in the dark ages."

Equine drug research in Kentucky usually doesn't generate much interest from government officials. So it was a surprise when former state senator Dr. Ed Ford attended the Jan. 10 drug council meeting. A few days later, Gov. Paul Patton promoted him from deputy cabinet secretary to cabinet secretary in the wake of Crit Luallen's resignation.

During the drug council meeting, Ford, in response to questions from council members, indicated a willingness to facilitate statutory change in the legislature. "It's not that complicated to strike two or three words from the statute," he said.

The racing commission Jan. 15 unanimously approved a drug council request to pursue a change in the statute. Chairman Frank Shoop heralded his support of the initiative and said the governor's office would prepare a letter to help move it forward during the current legislative session.

Early last year, the Kentucky HBPA, through then general counsel Don Sturgill, fought attempts to spend drug council money on out-of-state research projects. Sturgill died in October 2002, and the HBPA has since been relatively silent on the issue.

During the Jan. 10 meeting, Dr. Arnold Pessin, organizer of the Lexington-based Race Track Practitioners who monitors racing commission and drug council business, publicly accused the council of "trying to get control of the money and cut the legs out from under the University of Kentucky." He later said the racing commission was "hoodwinked by a conspiracy" and questioned the drug council's integrity.

Shoop could not be reached for follow-up comments in light of the allegations. At the meeting, however, Alice Chandler, a member of the drug council, told Pessin his remarks were unfounded. "I don't worry about it, and I'm chairman of the Gluck board," she said.

The drug council, like the racing commission, is a public body, but since about the middle of 2002, notice of its meetings has not been provided to the media. Members of the press have found out about drug council meetings through second- and third-hand information.

In the past, meeting notices were mailed to media outlets in the same way the racing commission notices its meetings. The racing commission also announces a schedule of meetings as required under the Kentucky Open Public Meetings Act.

The next drug council meeting is scheduled for March, probably before the March 19 racing commission meeting.


About the Author

Tom LaMarra

Tom LaMarra, a native of New Jersey and graduate of Rutgers University, has been news editor at The Blood-Horse since 1998. After graduation he worked at newspapers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as an editor and reporter with a focus on municipal government and politics. He also worked at Daily Racing Form and Thoroughbred Times before joining The Blood-Horse. LaMarra, who has lived in Lexington since 1994, has won various writing awards and was recognized with the Old Hilltop Award for outstanding coverage of the horse racing industry. He likes to spend some of his spare time handicapping races.

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