Horses racing at Saratoga in 2010. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

American horse racing: Gonna have to face it you’re addicted to drugs

American Horse Racing - Addicted to Death. Tuesday's Horse.

Will the North American racing industry ever fess up?

by JANE ALLIN

Every August, the Albany Law School’s Government Law Center hosts the “Saratoga Institute on Racing and Gaming Law” a program dedicated to exploring the legal and public policy implications of racing and gaming in New York State and across the country. The first day was dedicated to the use of drugs in North American racing known as the Racehorse Medication Summit. This year’s topics included the following:

  • National Uniform Drug Policy: Success / Failure / Future
  • Out of Competition Testing: The Drug Testing Process & Regulatory Reform
  • Therapeutic Medication in the Race Horse: Practice & Law
  • Mock Hearing: “So You’ve Got a Positive Test”
  • Drug Positives: The Absolute Insurers Rule, Horseman Liability & Best Practices

What an encouraging and virtuous initiative with an agenda deemed to address all the current issues in the North American racing industry. Imagine, a group of distinguished and concerned law panelists pontificating on directives to improve the state of drug regulation in an effort to mandate reform in this broken industry.

Hogwash.

Deplorably the resounding message delivered to the public ear was that we are all uninformed when it comes to horses and medications administered to them. Apparently the perception of overmedication is all a ruse – a myth – deceptively and horribly manipulated to tarnish the reputation of the racing industry here in North America.

    “Two days after The Jockey Club Round Table conference, at which chairman Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps declared that the organization would support federal oversight of racing in the absence of further medication reform, a variety of panelists said public perception of the sport is based in faulty and biased representation by both the press and industry organizations.” (www.bloodhorse.com)

The article opens with a patronizing and inane comment voiced by John Kimmel, a trainer and a member of the panel:

    “If you came out and visited the backside and saw the care that horses get, you’d be quite astounded at the level of care and concern they receive,” he said. “It’s easy to throw darts when you’re uninformed.” (www.bloodhorse.com)

No we would not be astounded. Seriously, what else would you expect to see?

No one can literally “see” the drugs circulating in the blood of these innocent creatures – they are invisible to the naked eye, that is, until they take their toll on weakened limbs numbed from anti-inflammatories and other common medications administered on a routine basis.  No one doubts that horses receive “good care” but unfortunately some of that purported “good care” is not aligned with the welfare of the horse. No, in fact the unscrupulous and unwarranted use of medication in North American racing precludes any notion of well being. This statement is so lacking in context it is almost laughable if it wasn’t so despicably void of what really goes on behind closed doors.

In any case, according to this revered panel, founded on a series of lectures delivered by several “so-called” experts in the field – most with the acronyms DVM or Esq. appended to  their names – the racing industry is a model to be held in high esteem amongst sporting venues when it comes to drug testing and regulation.

In the article referenced above as well as in a similar article, RCI’s (Racing Commissioners International) President Ed Martin claims that horse racing gets a “Bum Rap” on drug issues. (www.paulickreport.com) It is the same old rhetoric we have been hearing for years using the same long-standing platform about the exceptional integrity of drug testing performed by the racing industry.

    “Martin noted that drug test results in horse racing are in line with results from testing done by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Based on information in USADA’s 2011 annual report, 8,204 USADA tests were conducted and 99.65% of the results were ultimately determined to be without violation,” he noted.” (www.paulickreport.com)

Ok, understood – Bravo!

I don’t think anyone remotely involved with racing doubts these statistics insofar as routine drug testing goes during actual racing events, particularly in Graded Stakes venues where purses are tantalizingly opulent and where only the best horses compete.

But it is simply more statistical propaganda to fuel their debate.

Moreover, recall The Jockey Club’s “threat” of looking for federal oversight and note below the prompt and condescending response in defense of supporting disproportionate drug use – drug use they claim is under control. Much too ominous of an alternative for these people – they would have to forfeit control and in doing so profits from the myriad drugs coursing through the bodies of the pawns of the industries would decline.

    “A parade of panelists declared that an inaccurate public perception of the sport has been created by organizations like The Jockey Club and by media that hastens to cover “controversy and tragedy,” as Chris Wittstruck put it, without background in the sport.” (www.bloodhorse.com)

Now they are claiming The Jockey Club and other groups, presumably including the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA), are equally uninformed. Not surprising given that these two organizations banded together to launch an advocacy and information website designed to promote improved regulatory standards for horse racing (horseracingreform.org which replaces cleanhorseracing.org).  Don’t forget that these are the very organizations that are in support of phase-out of race-day medication and promoting transparency within the industry from all aspects.

Talk about a double standard. The Jockey Club and the TOBA very much “want” to move forward and put North American racing on a level playing field with the rest of the world. Yet this so-called panel of experts is fundamentally denying that anything is amiss. Unfortunately it seems the great majority of those directly involved in the industry are of the same mindset.

Martin goes on to describe how the racing industry conducted over 21 times more drug tests than the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency), the organization that oversees the integrity of competition in various sporting events.

    “At the annual Albany Law School Saratoga Institute on Racing and Gaming Law, Martin said that the appearance to some that racing has more of a drug problem than other sports may result from the fact that there are over 96,000 individual horse race contests each year compared to approximately 2,475 MLB games, 1,275 NBA games, 1,275 NHL games, and 275 NFL games.” (www.paulickreport.com)

Not surprising given that there are close to 20 times more individual horse races than the total games played by these teams. (www.paulickreport.com) It is at the very least what should be expected, not over and above the call of duty.

The article also cites a breakdown of the violations according to class of severity – 99.6% of the time there were no Class 1, 2, or 3 substances found with the majority (75%) for substances at the Class 4 or 5 level considered to be the least performance enhancing. (www.paulickreport.com)

Seemingly racing is a sport without serious drug violations.

Unfortunately it is not so cut-and-dried. And therein lies the problem – the glaring issue they will go out of their way to circumvent – the point at which the entire argument of accountability and integrity crumbles.

Apart from the unwarranted use of lasix on race day, it is what they do between and leading up to races that merits the reputation of “drug junkie” horse racing nation – an unremitting culture of permissive drug use that North America just can seem to let go of. We are talking about all the unregulated therapeutics such as phenylbutazone, banamine, and other potent NSAIDs as well as other widely abused medications such as dexamethasone, clenbuterol, methocarbanol and lasix for example? Yes lasix!

All of these medications are independent from race-day medication rules and threshold limits when used routinely and without discretion during training prior to a race.  Undeniably this is the black mark on North American racing despite their disclaimer. We are not talking about illegal drugs – frog juice, anabolic steroids or the next elusive concoction that will go undetected – all the bad-ass Class 1, 2 and 3 violations. No, we are talking about the so-called innocuous “therapeutics” and the allowance of threshold limits for each medication on race day.

This entire committee and most at the top of this whole drug “reform” can’t see the forest for the trees. Perhaps more fittingly they have no desire to or more pathetically they are intimidated by the backlash they would receive from their peers. United they stand in their feeble effort to conceal the insidious underlying issue that is literally killing this sport in North America.

It really has little to do with all the fancy drug testing statistics used purely as a façade to conceal the real issue.

One need only recall the fate of Coronado Heights, a 4-year-old thoroughbred who received a diagnosis of early degenerative joint disease. In the week prior to a race at Aqueduct, ten different drugs were administered, often in multiple doses (see New York Times illustration), to quell his unsoundness, the only reason being that his ethically challenged owner and trainer could not bear the thought of losing out on the prospect of winning. Sadly Coronado Heights broke down and was euthanized on the track. (www.tuesdayshorse.com)

And this is by no means an isolated incident.

    Only after Bourbon Bandit broke a leg racing last November did his owner, Susan Kayne, learn the full extent of prescription drugs that veterinarians had given him at Belmont Park on Long Island.

    Until then, Ms. Kayne had believed that Bourbon Bandit was “sound and healthy,” because that is what her trainer told her, she said. But new veterinary bills arrived, showing that the horse had been treated regularly with clenbuterol, a widely abused medication for breathing problems that can build muscle by mimicking anabolic steroids.  

    “If a horse is sound, why does it need all these drugs?” she asked. “I never gave consent.” (www.nytimes.com)

And from the same article:

    “Gene and Eileen Hartis, horse owners in Texas, also describe themselves as “minimalist when it comes to medication.” “We were opposed to anything that would mask an injury just so a horse would run,” Mr. Hartis said.

    Their first bill from a California veterinarian was for $8,500 for just over three months. Every horse they had sent to their trainer was healthy, Mr. Hartis said. Even so, the horses began receiving drugs without the owners’ permission “from the minute they got off the trailer,” he said. Two horses received clenbuterol on the same seven days, invoices show.

    The veterinarian, Dr. Keith Latson, declined to comment.” (www.nytimes.com)

Let’s face it. North American horses are being drugged to death yet those who oversee these magnificent creatures are in complete denial or simply don’t care.

And another question comes to mind.

Why are they comparing the drug statistics of human athletes to horses, shouldn’t they be comparing horses-to-horses as in the apples-to-apples analogy?

The answer is quite simple – they can’t – at least not without major repercussions. It is clearly because North America’s dogmatic addiction to drugs is so unlike the “real” world of racing that exists around the globe. As Dr. Rick Arthur, the medical director for the California Horse Racing Board underscores in Part II of a Painful Truth – The International Difference:

    “The major difference between the U.S. and the rest of the world, and especially Europe, is that here you back up the veterinary truck to the barn after the horse is entered,” . . . . “We did an analysis at Hollywood Park last year and found that the average horse got 5 ½ injections after entering the race before they got their Lasix shot. You don’t get that in the rest of the world, where there is a much different way of doing things.” (www.thoroughbreddailynews.com)

In other words:

    “Arthur’s ‘backing up the vet truck’ means doing everything you can within the regulations to get an assist from drugs — some innocuous, some sometimes not so innocuous. Add Lasix to the mix, something given to virtually every horse that races, whether they have a bleeding problem or not, and it pretty much sums up the way business is done in the United States.” (www.thoroughbreddailynews.com)

Virtually nowhere else in the world does this happen – the following statement pretty much sums it up.

    “Welfare in Europe and welfare in the U.S. is the same word, but welfare in Europe means to train the horse without any chemicals and make him race if he can face the challenge,” said Dr. Roland Devolz, a veterinarian with France Galop. “In your country, welfare means to be allowed to use as many drugs as possible to ensure the horse will support training and race. It is a totally different culture.” (www.thoroughbreddailynews.com)

Indeed, a culture that must change before the inevitable apocalypse.

Besides, the breakdown statistics unambiguously demonstrate the differences between the two philosophies. For example, in Britain the breakdown rate is 0.65 per 1,000 starts and in Hong Kong, where horses face the heaviest schedules, the rate is 0.00035. (www.therail.blogs.nytimes.com)

By comparison, in North America, an analysis of breakdowns per 1,000 starts (catastrophic injury) using statistics compiled by the Equine Injury Database over a two-year period, were as follows: 2.14 on dirt, 1.74 on turf and 1.55 on synthetics. (www.bloodhorse.com)

Note also that these statistics only include breakdowns during a race and only from those tracks that voluntarily provide these facts. Moreover anecdotal evidence suggests that breakdowns are equally if not more prevalent during training. This, together with the grim reality that tracks with high numbers of breakdowns do not actively participate in the collection of injury statistics, implies that the real numbers are no doubt much, much higher than reported. An analysis by the New York Times serves to illustrate this line of reasoning where breakdowns at some of the nation’s tracks are in excess of 10 per 1,000 starts. (www.nytimes.com/interactive>

New York Times Racehorse Breakdown Chart.
New York Times Racehorse Breakdown Chart. (click to enlarge)

What’s more, it seems that North American breeders are not paying heed to what the rest of the world has to say about their bloodstock. Soon, none of their prized stallions and mares will be welcomed anywhere but in North America. If that doesn’t change their perspective I question what will. The North American pocketbook is the only thing of value in their one-dimensional strategy. They seem a community obsessed, so infatuated with the monetary aspect of the industry that horses are ostensibly inanimate objects akin to the plastic pawns of a cheap chess set.

    “Drugs are seriously affecting the U.S. bloodstock market. It’s seriously affecting breeders who are basically being excluded from the most important and robust international market there is – the European market or the market that is described as European money and included Middle Eastern money. The Dubai people are now buying almost exclusively in England and France.” – Bill Oppenheim, breeding market analyst. (www.thoroughbreddailynews.com)

Apart from a few saviors the North American racing industry paints a sordid picture. These are people who live in a world foreign to the substance of what the sport of horse racing symbolizes – people who will, of their own accord, in due course be the end to all of their fanatical addiction to drugs and money and the demise of NA racing.

So be it. Perhaps it would be a welcome outcome.

In any case, it’s not just the general public’s outcry regarding undisciplined drug use. According to those at the pinnacle of NA racing the general public is ostensibly an uninformed moron.  However, they seem to forget that the stigma of indiscriminate use of drugs has infiltrated the element of racing that fuels the profit margin these days – the bettors, the casino gang.

    “It turns out that the destructive and widespread doping of racehorses has become as much a concern for the $2 bettor as it is for the Jockey Club, the sport’s most influential group, which is urging far stronger safeguards to repair racing’s credibility. The club’s new opinion poll finds that as bettors handicap their choices, nearly four out of five ponder the possibility of illegal drug use, much the way they factor in a muddy track. Bettors are also making smaller wagers because of their suspicions. This a red flag from the sport’s customer base.” (www.nytimes.com)

The crux of the problem is that there simply isn’t enough drug testing performed in North America or at the very least lacking in terms of testing at opportune times to filter out the cheaters. In many countries where the use of drugs during training and racing is taboo such as Hong Kong, the UK and Europe, horses are subject to pre-race, post race and out-of-competition testing such that cheating is virtually impossible.  

Here in North America, apart from races such as the Triple Crown events and other Grade I stakes, the norm is to test the winners immediately following a race which fails to detect drugs administered days prior to the race some of which can have lingering performance enhancing effects. It is no coincidence that these are the very races where the vast majority of catastrophic breakdowns occur – racetracks that have lax enforcement of drug regulations and turn a blind eye to violations.

Despite the fact that some states have been making headway in terms of enhanced testing and stricter policies for drug noncompliance (i.e. New York, Kentucky, California) the situation remains sobering. Just last year a report by the New York Times revealed that on average 24 horses were perishing on the track each week, many being inexpensive racehorses whose  “deaths often go unexamined, the bodies shipped to rendering plants and landfills rather than to pathologists who might have discovered why the horses broke down.” (http://www.nytimes.com) This is far in excess of any other country around the globe.

Breakdowns continue to plague this wretched industry. Just this past week two jockeys were injured and one horse euthanized at Fairmount Park. The same week three horses died at the 2013 Saratoga meet – Kris Royal a five-year old gelding who fractured his left front leg, 4-year old Sarava’s Dancer also with a fractured leg and Richochet Court who shattered both left legs during a work-out. Sadly it wasn’t just the horses that were sacrificed at Saratoga. Exercise rider Ray Bulgado was critically injured when Richohet Court broke down while breezing at full speed and remains in critical condition in the trauma intensive care unit with a broken neck. The list goes on.

Neither horse nor rider is safe in this drug-ridden business.

    “I hear from Americans who throw up their hands and say “well, we have to use these drugs, because our system is just so tough on the horse”. That may well be true, but that is the most damning thing one can say about the sport if that is the case. If the American racing system has devolved so badly that a horse cannot cope without all the drugs, then the system has to change. If racing cannot change to fit the horse, rather than continue to medicate the horse to fit the system, the sport is most certainly – and probably should be – doomed”. – Gina Rarick, American trainer in France. (www.thoroughbreddailynewscom)

Everyone wants reform. Everyone it seems except the North American racing industry.

3 thoughts on “American horse racing: Gonna have to face it you’re addicted to drugs”

  1. Thank you Jane for another terrific article. I know there is so much drugging and cheating in American racing it is time consuming to keep up with. And that’s just what’s public knowledge. Then there are the ridiculously condescending lies saying it hardly exists. Or “they” are doing even more sophisticated testing — like that has done any good, right?. It is a lot for you to wade through, stay on top of, and analyze, but we need to respond to it and there really is no one else that does it at the level we do. As always you did a splendid job. Thanks again.

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    1. Thanks Vivian. I know not everyone wants to read all this stuff but it’s important to keep it visible to the racing world from our end. More to come!

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      1. Amen to that. People respond more strongly when they see the end result of evil and unnecessary drug use as you point out — which are breakdowns and death. We must respond when horse racing tries to bull their way out of taking responsibility. Obviously all the drug testing in the world is not going to end drug abuse. Has it ever?

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