Would it be better to drop Bute altogether?

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Would it be better to drop Bute altogether?

A recent complaint by the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey (SBOANJ) has turned the limelight on a favorite painkiller for horses:  phenylbutazone, also known as Bute. The New Jersey Racing Commission (NJRC) in July changed a rule on the use of the popular medication to treat racehorses. Bute must not be used on a horse up to 48 hours before a race. The previous rule allowed treatment to be given up to 24 hours before the horse was due to compete. 

The matter is quite important in the racing environment. Horse races resumed in July, and NJ horse racing betting is putting a lot of effort into keeping clients happy to make up for time lost during the lockdown. Horses are back to the courses, and medication like Bute is often needed. Phenylbutazone is above all a very efficient and inexpensive anti-inflammatory. Sore joints are regularly treated with it. Recovery from fractures benefits from it too. The medication can be injected or mixed to the feed as a powder or paste.

Until the 1950s, Bute was used to treat arthritis and gout in humans too. Then it was found that it could cause blood ailments like aplastic anaemia. This disorder causes the bone marrow to stop producing enough red and white blood cells and platelets. Severe forms of the disease are life-threatening, as the consequences may include infections or bleeding. For this reason, the drug was banned from use on humans. Later, the United States’ Food and Drug Administration prohibited its use in food-producing animals, including dairy cows. In Europe, animals bred for meat must not be given a series of prohibited medicines, including Bute.

In 1968 the Kentucky Derby saw the first case in the history of the race when a winner was disqualified, and the cause was Bute. Dancer’s Image, the original victor, tested positive for phenylbutazone, in a post-race test and was stripped of his title. Officials declared second-place Forward Pass the ultimate winner of the race. A legal battle continued for years and attracted lots of attention from the sports media and the horse-racing community. The judgment stayed unchanged. Bute could be used during training but was not allowed to be in a horse’s system at the time of the race under Kentucky law. 

The New Jersey recent case involved some horses that tested positive for phenylbutazone at the Meadowlands course. The issue involved standardbreds. Trainers, practicing veterinarians and the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey (SBOANJ) claim that they were not notified of the change in the rule by the New Jersey Racing Commission. On the other hand, the New Jersey Thoroughbred horsemen and veterinarians received the information well in advance.

The first offense penalties are stringent and call for a first offense to receive a $500 fine, loss of purse, and a 15-day suspension from racing. SBOANJ is providing legal assistance to the first three trainers who have appealed the rulings. According to the Association, more cases are coming up. Bute may have side effects on horses including ulcers, kidney damage and internal bleeding, especially in young, ill or stressed horses. Perhaps it would be wise to find an alternative medication altogether.