Joe Landers turned his lifelong love for horses into a lucrative business, first by breeding them on his Texas ranch and then running a pharmacy catering to their race performance needs.
But it was the Weatherford man’s love of money, federal authorities say, that made him part of a growing problem in the horse racing industry that is putting profits ahead of horses and their well-being. Landers pleaded guilty last week in federal court to charges related to the production and sale of dangerous drugs for racehorses in Texas and in other states, according to federal court records.
Injected with drugs, muscled horses are being pushed faster and faster, leading to gruesome injuries on the track that often result in euthanasia in front of stunned onlookers.
Landers, 67, owned Weatherford Compounding Pharmacy near Fort Worth, which was accused in a lawsuit of causing the suspension of a Texas trainer after his horses tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug.
Landers ran the pharmacy for about four years before federal law enforcement authorities raided it in May 2014. He admitted to introducing misbranded and adulterated drugs into interstate commerce with intent to defraud and mislead. He faces up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. His sentencing is scheduled for December.
His case highlights the continuing problem of illegal drugs in the horse racing industry. Illegal doping and racing injuries have resulted in serious harm to horses as well as deaths, spurring calls for reform. That pressure is no longer coming just from animal rights activists. The public is beginning to sour on the sport, particularly in Texas, where race revenues are down considerably.
A bipartisan bill called the Horseracing Integrity Act has been proposed in Congress that would form an independent anti-doping authority for horse racing.
The Landers case also represents a rare instance of federal authorities targeting a veterinary pharmacy for criminal prosecution. When contacted, FDA officials said they could not point to another such case in Texas.
Dr. Mary Scollay is a veterinarian and incoming executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, a nonprofit that represents 23 industry stakeholders on medication and testing issues. She said the FDA is “very strapped” and that “harm to humans is going to outrank harm to horses.”
The FDA has told her, she said, it often doesn’t have the resources to investigate new suspicious horse drugs that turn up.
Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said compounded medications are of particular concern because unlike FDA-approved drugs, they don’t undergo any quality control. One must rely on the producer’s assurances that they’re not getting contaminated or manufactured in improper dosages, she said. “There is no way to know for certain,” Scollay said.
Compounding pharmacies that prepare human medications have been subjected to increased scrutiny and prosecution in recent years due to problems with contamination and improper dosages that have sickened and killed people in Texas and nationwide. Compounding pharmacies tailor certain drugs to individual patients, usually in small batches, by, for example, altering dosages, mixing medications and converting pills into liquids.
Landers, a former horse breeder, is not a veterinarian or a pharmacist. He bought his drug ingredients in China and India and hired professionals to make his illegal horse drug products, then market and sell them, according to federal court records. His products included a concoction called “Super Fecta,” which is administered to horses intravenously to “affect the structure and function” of their bodies, his federal court records said.
Prosecutors said Super Fecta was never submitted to the FDA for approval and is considered unsafe. Landers in August 2015 shipped 12 bottles of Super Fecta to a veterinary clinic in Louisiana with the intent to defraud and mislead the customer, according to his plea documents.
As part of his plea agreement, Landers agreed to forfeit more than $612,000 that was seized from his bank accounts in 2015, court records show
Landers could not be reached, and his son said the family had no comment. Landers’ attorney also declined to comment.
Landers’ troubles began when he transitioned from breeding horses to selling veterinary drugs to help them perform better in races. As early as 2013, the Texas Racing Commission was aware of his activities and considered him a “bad actor,” according to published reports. The drug positives he admitted to causing that year at a New Mexico racetrack caused a stir in the industry, particularly since it netted a notable San Antonio trainer a 16-year ban.
Tests found that Landers’ drug contained sildenafil, the active ingredient in the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, which is banned in horse racing. Medical researchers have reported that sildenafil can boost performance in racehorses, which are prone to lung bleeding and edema after races. The drug improves cardiac output.
Following the positive drug tests, New Mexico regulators confiscated some of Landers’ products and sent them to the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. The RMTC saw red flags in some of the products he had for sale, such as a medication called “Equine Monster Energy,” according to one of its brochures.
In response to questions, the FDA issued the following statement: “Protecting human and animal health is a priority for the FDA. The FDA will take action, as appropriate, when firms try to circumvent the agency’s approval process and market unapproved drugs which put people and animals at risk.”
Landers operated a horse-breeding facility there for about a dozen years before opening his pharmacy in 2010, according to his website.
The Weatherford Compounding Pharmacy’s website said it provided “equine veterinarians with the customized medications their patients need.” The pharmacy produced medications mostly for racehorses, Landers said during a New Mexico Racing Commission hearing.
Landers, the website said, “grew up with a passion for horses” and “decided to transfer his knowledge of reproductive drugs and equine health to a new pharmaceutical endeavor.”
By 2012, concerns about the industry’s ability to police itself were increasing. In March of that year, The New York Times published a report detailing a lack of oversight, transparency and regulation in the horse racing industry that it said jeopardized the safety of the animals and jockeys. The article said an average of 24 horses die every week at American racetracks.
And The Times said its analysis of race data revealed an industry “still mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation.”
The positive drug tests on four horses at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico in July 2013 were blamed on a compounded paste called Tourniquet made by the Landers’ Weatherford pharmacy. A veterinarian testified that he administered it to the horses to try to prevent exercise-related bleeding, a common condition in racehorses.
Ray Paulick, a journalist who covers the industry, interviewed the veterinarian, who said the Tourniquet paste was sent to him and that he didn’t have any scientific or clinical evidence at the time about whether or not it worked.
The New Mexico Racing Commission issued the trainer, John Stinebaugh, a 16-year suspension and $40,000 fine. He had been ranked among the top 10 trainers nationally by earnings, according to the quarter horse association.
Stinebaugh sued Landers and his pharmacy for $6 million in El Paso County District Court in 2015 over the positive doping tests on his horses. Stinebaugh claimed in the suit, which was later settled, that Landers assured him that the Tourniquet compound paste was free of Viagra before a veterinarian used it on the horses before the races.
Stinebaugh later successfully challenged the career-ending suspension in court and is currently in good standing, according to the New Mexico Racing Commission. He could not be reached for comment.
In late 2013, BloodHorse, a racing publication, published an article on Landers’ pharmacy and how it had attracted “industry scrutiny.” The article reported that the Texas Racing Commission officials were aware of the pharmacy and considered it a “bad actor.” One clue, the report said, was its collection of “mysterious products with names that suggest performance-enhancing effects,” like Equine Growth Hormone, Game Changer and Race Ready.
During a February hearing before the New Mexico Racing Commission, Landers said his suppliers told him they bought ingredients from an FDA-approved facility in China. He said he was surprised about the contamination and took full responsibility for it, according to a transcript.
Ismael “Izzy” Trejo, executive director of the New Mexico Racing Commission, said it’s difficult to stay ahead of dopers and that the battle will continue “as long as you continue to have million-dollar races and lucrative purses.”
“It’s a proverbial cat-and-mouse game,” he said.
Out of business
FDA agents searched the Weatherford Compounding Pharmacy with a warrant in May 2014, according to published reports.
The pharmacy initially stayed open but lost its license to operate in other states. It had shipped the same compounded drug containing Viagra to a veterinarian in Iowa to administer to racehorses, which resulted in drug positives there, according to the Iowa pharmacy board.
The Iowa board accused the pharmacy of multiple violations that included the “introduction of adulterated drugs, improper labeling, incomplete production records, exceeding beyond-use dates, and a failure to adhere to compounding policies and procedures.”
The Weatherford Compounding Pharmacy eventually agreed to surrender its Iowa license.
Landers said in bankruptcy records that he closed his Weatherford pharmacy in October 2016.
His 2018 bankruptcy records listed $34,900 in assets and $1.6 million in liabilities.
Landers, who once owned boats and a Cessna private plane, said in the bankruptcy that he was unemployed and on Social Security. The case was discharged in late 2018.
His case was not unique.
Other veterinary drug compounders in states like Kentucky and California also faced regulatory action following the deaths and illnesses of horses due to improperly-mixed compounds, according to published reports. In many cases, lethal doses killed the horses. The specialized medications also resulted in fines and suspensions for trainers after post-race tests turned up banned substances.
Landers was charged in June in Fort Worth without a grand jury indictment, which typically indicates a defendant cooperated with authorities and agreed in advance to plead guilty.