1978: Horse racing ridicules jockeys including Steve Cauthen when they warn about Bute

Hall of Fame jockey testifies 34 years later for a bill amending the Horse Racing Improvement Act of 1978 to ban drugs like Bute.

SI Cover May 15, 1978
Sports Illustrated Cover May 15, 1978. Steve Cauthen and Affirmed Win the Kentucky Derby. Photograph by Jerry Cooke.

Allow me to take you through the Wayback Machine to May 15, 1978, courtesy of the Sports Illustrated vault. A group of leading American jockeys that included superstar Steve Cauthen who rode Affirmed, the last horse to win the Triple Crown, sounded alarm bells on the hazards to both horse and rider concerning injury-masking drugs.

The drug in contention was phenylbutazone, commonly referred to as Bute. If only horse racing had listened then, how many fatalities or career-altering injuries to horse and jockey could have been avoided?

Listen in on the discussion from the SI article “New Uproar Over A Controversial Drug“.

“Jockeys just aren’t smart,” snaps a prominent trainer at Baltimore’s Pimlico racetrack. “Don’t pay any attention to them. The proof is when you call the White House, no guy 4’8″ tall answers the phone.”

While this derisive observation is obviously illogical, incongruous and indefensible, it is accurate evidence of how edgy the people in racing are these days as they confront what has become the sport’s most explosive issue — Bute.

Butazolidin is the brand name for the drug phenylbutazone, a medication that can reduce swelling and inflammation, which in turn eases pain. It’s the most widely used drug in the horse racing industry, yet, on the heels of a series of recent accidents, its very mention generates emotional sparks.

And jockeys — including Rudy Turcotte, who broke his collarbone in a horrendous four-horse spill at Pimlico earlier this month that killed one rider, Robert Pineda — are questioning its use.

Jorge Velasquez, one of the nation’s top jockeys, says, “In my opinion, these places that use Bute are really not in control of it.” And Steve Cauthen says, “The thing I don’t like about Bute is the horse tries to overextend himself. The horse is better when he knows how he feels.”

Indeed, a big knock on Bute — albeit a much refuted one — is that it does make a horse feel better than it really is, thus making it possible for the animal to put too much pressure on a bad ankle or knee.

The newest question raised about Bute is whether the drug adversely affects healing of an injury, and whether bone density is subsequently weakened. This question arises because of a feeling that serious breakdowns are increasing, that instead of horses coming back lame after a race, too many are snapping their legs and going down during it.

Other tragic incidents involving horses and jockeys recorded in the SI article are hauntingly familiar to the modern day ear, like this one:

Then, in February at Bowie, Md., rider John Adams was crushed when his horse, Po Sho, broke her leg and went down. Adams was unconscious for 21 days, and semiconscious 14 more. “Bute makes ’em try too hard,” says Adams, who is recuperating at his Bowie home. “They had to use Bute to get Po Sho to the track. She couldn’t have raced without it.” Trainer David Sipe says that’s not true, although he admits Po Sho was running with a bone chip in her ankle.

How about some of these responses from the supporters of Bute to the jockeys’ concerned statements?

But the jocks have plenty of opposition. Gene Bierhaus, chief vet of the Colorado Racing Commission says, “I really hate to see jockeys evaluate scientific questions.” Maryland veterinarian Jim Stewart suggests, “When people are killed in cars, it’s not because of the gasoline.” And Chick Lang, Pimlico’s general manager, says, “About the only way a jockey can get killed by Butazolidin is for a box of it to fall on his head. But if I’m wrong and it’s being abused, then let’s find out and do something about it.”

What was the horse industry’s answer to the questions about Bute in 1978? Pretty much the same as it is now with equally failing results: We’ll study it.

Yet racehorse owner James P. Mills, who was anti-Bute, stated he felt that the pressure from the jockeys is the “best hope” for doing away with it.

Sadly that has not happened.

Fast forward to modern day horse racing and the Congressional Subcommittee Hearing of Monday, April 30th in Pennsylvania. The subject was “A Review of Efforts to Protect the Health of Jockeys and Horses in Horseracing.”

Jockeys still are not being listened to by the industry, but they are by politicians in Washington, DC, something horse racing may live to regret for a very long time. A key witness invited to speak at the Hearing was Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens who takes a zero-tolerance stand on raceday medications and testified accordingly.

One of Stevens’ more poignant statements was:

“There is nothing worse than being on a [medicated] horse with a snapped off leg who continued to try and run for you.” Gary Stevens

He seemed a bit nervous about appearing before the Committee, considering what he was prepared to say. In light of the quotes from the SI article and statements made in the run up to his appearance, justifiably so. The attitudes of the powers-that-be in horse racing have changed very, very little.

Jay Hovdey, reporting for the Daily Racing Form a couple of days before Stevens’ participation in the Hearing, wrote:

Like most jockeys who spend their professional lives out on a limb, he is braced for blowback.

“I’m probably digging my own grave with a lot of people in the business,” Stevens said. “But I think it’s time for the federal government to protect racing from itself.”

I wouldn’t worry too much if I were he. There is danger lurking that no one in horse racing seems to fully comprehend or perhaps even believe, and Stevens will be the least of their worries.

A successful outcome to the Hearing means federal Bill H.R. 1733 amending the Horse Racing Improvement Act “To amend the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 to prohibit the use of performance-enhancing drugs in horseracing, and for other purposes” will progress toward enactment.

Few welcome interference from Washington DC, and with very good reason. But how much longer can we wait? How much carnage has to take place?


All the pretty racehorses full of the ugly drugs”, Tuesday’s Horse, April 30, 2012

Fact vs Fiction: Federal Bill to End Racehorse Doping, Tuesday’s Horse, April 8, 2012

5 thoughts on “1978: Horse racing ridicules jockeys including Steve Cauthen when they warn about Bute”

  1. Apart from all the bad, it really is encouraging to see the uptake on drugs and other issues the racing industry is facing these days. I would love to see positive outcomes on all of the measures that various individuals and organizations are taking to enable transparency in NA TB racing. It is a difficult path obscured by sometimes insurmountable roadblocks imposed by the controlling factors inherent to syndication and the overwhelming abandonment of respect for those who have provided the euphoria and excitement of the grandness of the sport

    Perhaps it is wishful thinking but I have faith that there are those out there that want reform and truly care about the horses that are integral to its survival. As much as I can be the greatest critic of the sport there is no doubt in my mind that it is one of beauty, perseverance and heart, all presented to us from the horse’s perspective if given a fair chance.

    We have to remember that people run the industry, not those who define it. It is high time that we begin to resurrect one of the most breathtaking displays there is to witness on this Earth; the thunder of the horses racing with all of their heart, complete dedication to their task, all for us. How much more can we solicit from those who give their hearts to us, unconditionally and without reserve?


  2. Imagine the money the veterinarians and especially the pharmaceutical companies would lose if all these horrible drugs — not the true, gentle therapeutics — the harsh ones with side effects were eliminated from horse racing. You can be sure they are putting the pressure on.




  4. Thirty-five years later, and nothing’s changed for the better. I think Bute was being used as the focal point for a lot of the jockeys’ fears about what was really happening on the backside.

    And I suspect many owners and trainers still share the attitude that jockeys are disposables…just like their horses.


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