A Pilot Program
By Pam Gleason
Just one year ago, 21 polo horses in Florida suddenly collapsed and died after being injected with an improperly compounded vitamin cocktail. The horses, from the Lechuza Caracas team, were on their way to a quarter final match of the United States Open Polo Tournament that was to be played at the International Polo Club Palm Beach. It was the Sunday game. The majority of the horses were stricken at the field, and frantic attempts to save them were in full view of the crowd of spectators and members of the polo community. The incident became national and international news, as Food and Drug Administration and Florida Department of Agriculture investigators tried to determine what had killed the horses. Unofficial speculation was rampant: perhaps the horses were given a dangerous performance enhancing drug; maybe their vitamins were tainted with cleaning fluid; maybe they were intentionally poisoned by someone who had a vendetta against Victor Vargas, the Venezuelan banker who owns the team and most of the horses on it.
In the end, it was concluded that the horses were killed by selenium, a trace mineral that was accidentally put into an intravenous vitamin and mineral mixture at a lethal dose. In the media frenzy surrounding the event, reporters often noted that polo in the United States had no medication laws whatsoever. Most other high performance horse sports do have anti-doping laws, including Thoroughbred racing, show jumping, driving and dressage. Over the past several years, many people in the polo community had been thinking that it was time to introduce some kind of medication rules into the sport. The tragedy in Florida got the ball rolling.
Several weeks after the incident, the United States Polo Association announced the formation of its Polo Pony Welfare Committee (PPWC), which included 21 volunteer members and was headed by Dr. Bill Patterson. Among the topics addressed by this committee was whether and how to institute medication rules for the sport.
“We met in my office every Wednesday afternoon,” says Peter Rizzo, who is the executive director of the USPA and sits on the board of the PPWC. “First we went into a research phase to see what all the other organizations do. We’re not the first sport to face these issues, of course. What we concluded was that getting the correct rules is going to take time, and that we probably won’t get it right the first year, but it was time to get a program going.”
The PPWC presented its conclusions at the annual meeting of the USPA board of governors in October 2009, where it was unanimously agreed to start a drug testing program. On February 25, the USPA announced a pilot program for “Equine Drug and Medication Testing,” publishing a list of permitted, regulated and banned substances, and giving members of the association one month to familiarize themselves with the new regulations before they went into effect. As of March 28, anyone playing in a USPA event is implicitly agreeing to submit their horses to random drug testing. The list of permitted substances is fairly liberal, and the rules include provisions for filing veterinary reports, documenting that individual horses are being treated with various regulated substances for therapeutic purposes. The complete rules and regulations are posted on the USPA website (www.us-polo.org).
“It isn’t our intention to stop people from medicating their horses,” says Peter Rizzo. “We just want to make sure that whatever people are doing, they are doing under the supervision of their veterinarian and that it is for a legitimate, therapeutic reason.”
The rules permit the administration of antibiotics (with the exception of penicillin procaine), hormonal therapies (such as Regumate) anti-ulcer medications (such as Gastroguard) and dewormers. Some other drugs, such as the corticosteroid dexamethasone (Azium) and various nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (such as Bute) are permitted at restricted levels. There are specific prohibitions against “any stimulant, depressant, tranquilizer, local anesthetic, psychotropic (mood and/or behavior altering) substance, or drugs which might affect the performance of a horse.” The rules also state that “all other drug classes not specifically permitted herein these rules are prohibited.”
One class of substances not mentioned in the rules are the chondroprotectives, which are chemicals that protect and lubricate cartilage and joints. These include oral supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, as well as intramuscular and intravenous formulations such as Adequan and Legend. Chondroprotectives mimic chemicals found naturally in the body, and are among a small number of therapeutic agents that are legal under Fédération Équestre International (FEI) rules, which govern international horse sports such as the Olympics and the World Equestrian Games.
“All the chondroprotectives are allowed,” says Dr. Bill Patterson. “We didn’t know there would be so much confusion about that.”
In addition to rules about medications, the new regulations contain specific prohibitions against various ingredients in the vitamin cocktail that was administered to the stricken horses in Florida. For instance, you are not allowed to give selenium injections “in any application and dosage amount” nor can you give any vitamins and minerals “no matter how applied, when given in excessive dosage quantities for non-therapeutic reasons.”
“We wanted to take a stand,” says Peter Rizzo. “We wanted to name those substances. Medication rules would not have prevented what happened in Florida. But when you hyper-medicate horses, anything can be harmful. So some of it is a statement: things like selenium you can’t do.”
The drugs and medication program will be administered by the United States Equestrian Federation, which is the organization that oversees many equestrian sports in the U.S. Drug testing teams will act independently of the polo organization: the USPA will give the USEF a list of tournaments across the country, and the USEF will choose where it will send its agents, without informing anyone in polo.
“There will be testing at USPA tournaments all across the country at all handicap levels starting on March 28,” says Dr. Patterson. “Essentially, we’re looking at doing 20 to 22 tournament events this year. Testers will take samples from 12 to 16 horses at an event. The horses sampled will be chosen at random.”
In the first year of the program, although violators of the medication rules will be informed about a positive test, the USPA has not established any specific penalties. Proposed sanctions will be ready for discussion at the USPA fall meetings, held the last week in August in Santa Barbara.
So far, reaction to the program has been overwhelmingly positive. In early March, the USPA held an open telephone forum to discuss the new rules with any members who wanted to call in. About 25 players participated. Many people had questions about details of the program, but most also said that they thought it was about time that the association had some medication guidelines.
“I look at it from a positive perspective in that I think that it will get people to think about what they are doing with their horses, and encourage an ethical use of therapeutic agents,” says Bill Patterson.
“It’s all about the welfare of the horses, and we want the heightened awareness of that,” says Peter Rizzo. “We could talk about drug profiles and testing and clearance times, but the bottom line is that this is meant to preserve the welfare of the horses. We want people to use their vets and their best judgment to take care of their animals. That’s what polo is all about.”
For more information about the pilot program, go to the USPA website. The USPA welcomes questions about the details of the program.