BY JANE ALLIN
An article written by Bill Dwyre last month in the Los Angeles Times absurdly glorifies Thoroughbred horse racing’s poster boy; “Horse racing has problems, but trainer Bob Baffert isn’t one of them”.
Bob Baffert is the Hall of Fame trainer with the largest racing stable in California, and more recently under the microscope for the mysterious “sudden deaths” due to cardiovascular/pulmonary failures of seven race horses over the course of several months (November 4, 2011 through March 14, 2013).
See The Blood-Horse at http://goo.gl/j1wmqZ.
What is particularly disturbing about these deaths is that by all accounts sudden death failures are a relatively rare occurrence, according to trainers and track veterinarians.
“A study published in 2010 in the Equine Veterinary Journal on sudden death in racing Thoroughbreds found it was responsible for 9% of fatalities in California. This same study showed 96 reported sudden deaths between Feb. 1990 and Aug. 2008 in California among Thoroughbreds while they were exercising, or an average of five per year. During the 18-year period, a total of five were reported in Pennsylvania; 23 in Victoria, Australia; 16 in Sydney; four in Hong Kong; and none in Japan.”
Equally unsettling is the fact that of the 36 horses succumbing to sudden death in the state of California during the period July 1, 2011 through March 31, 2013 seven were stabled with Baffert — 19.4%. Another article “Putting California sudden death numbers in perspective” taken from The Paulick Report lends insight to the disconcerting nature of the situation.
“Looked at another way, one trainer with 2.5% of the horses and 1.5% of the total starts has had 19.4% of the sudden deaths over a 21-month period.”
I call their bluff.
This is by no means “normal” nor is it a one-off due to ‘bad luck” particularly given Baffert’s history of rampant drug use – legal or otherwise – that has followed him from his Quarter Horse days. According to a New York Times article, “Breeders Cup – Trainers Aren’t Helping as Drugs Damage Sport”, Baffert stands third in the frequency of drug violations for horses of the top 20 trainers by earnings in the United States averaging one drug violation for every 545 starts.
And don’t forget the morphine incident at Hollywood Park way back in 2000 — listed as a Class 1 drug by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, Inc. (ARCI) and a proven performance enhancer. On May 3, 2000 the horse “Nautical Look” tested positive for morphine which was later confirmed by the Texas Veterinary Medical Laboratory. See ESPN at http://goo.gl/uiAwXH.
If administering morphine to enhance a horse’s performance isn’t bad enough, Baffert had the audacity to coerce a groom in his employ to lie to investigators. Baffert testified that the positive finding was a result of “unintentional contamination” from a food source containing poppy seeds (e.g. baked goods).
While it is true that poppy seeds can generate false positive drug tests, Baffert went a step further. When notified of the positive result he repeatedly contacted his groom and encouraged him to admit to eating bakery products while in close proximity to “Nautical Look”. Unfortunately for Baffert the groom told the truth and testified he had not consumed any food while handling the horse. See http://goo.gl/uiAwXH.
Despite this being a serious infraction, given that morphine is illegal, one simply cannot disregard the epidemic overuse of legal therapeutic medications that Baffert and other trainers use without discretion because they can.
This is the underpinning of what is wrong with North American racing. And it follows that if top-tier trainers such as Baffert are participating in this level of “legal” drugging, the competitive rational for trainers at all levels is to run with the herd.
Moreover there is no lack of evidence for criticizing Baffert’s abusive drug practices.
It is perfectly clear from the number of horses Baffert has had to sideline or retire prematurely, not to mention euthanize over the past couple of years and longer — Bodemeister, Paynter, Fed Biz, Princess Arabella, Flashback, Secret Circle and sadly Secret Compass who at the age of 2 collapsed during the 2013 $2 million Juvenile Fillies and was euthanized after sustaining a lateral condylar fracture — to name a few.
Yet these are the words of Bill Dwyre:
“Racing needs Baffert because the public knows him. He sells tickets, gets the sport on the evening news and on the front page. He’s got white hair, is quick with a good quote and has great success. Our shallow media mostly chases celebrity, and Baffert is one.
If Baffert is guilty of purposely doing something to harm animals, he needs to be ousted from the sport. But the only sanctioning body that can say that, the CHRB, already has said he is not. So it is time to move on.
Racing needs Baffert.
It needs the white hair, one-liners, loyal owners and sizable fan base. It needs him in the Kentucky Derby every couple of years. It needs him standing next to one of his owners, Joe Torre, when the national TV cameras come on.
The public has neither the time nor inclination to look much deeper than that, and racing badly needs that public.”
See Los Angeles Times at http://goo.gl/g68kyS.
This is precisely what is destroying the “Sport of Kings” here in North America. Baffert and the rest of these drug pushers is exactly what North American racing should rid itself of.
In any case, as expected, Baffert was cleared in the sudden deaths of the seven horses by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB). An extensive investigation concluded there was no evidence of wrongdoing yet the CHRB could find no specific reason for the abnormal number of deaths in one stable – inconclusive at best.
“The conclusion on a scientific basis would be that there is something different about Baffert, about the Hollywood Park main track and the barn, but we couldn’t find anything,” said Arthur. “It doesn’t change the fact we don’t have an answer. What it does say is, ‘There’s something wrong here.’”
See Ray’s Paddock, Paulick Report at http://goo.gl/TRW409
Just remember — we need Bob Baffert according to Dwyre.
FINAL REPORT FINDING: INCONCLUSIVE?
Below are some revealing excerpts taken from the official report on the investigation and review of the seven sudden deaths on the Hollywood Park main track of horses trained by Bob Baffert and stabled in Barn 61. See CHRB Report (pdf) at http://goo.gl/SlmxAF.
“Using all sudden deaths for Baffert (8 deaths, 2512 starts) there is an incidence of 3.18 deaths per 1,000 race starts (95% CI 1.37- 6.28). For comparison, all sudden deaths for non-Baffert trained horses (70 deaths, 199,637starts) have an incidence of 0.35 deaths/1,000 race starts (95% CI 0.27-0.44). Baffert-trained horses have a 9.08 (95% CI 4.37, 18.88; p<0.001) times greater incidence of sudden death during racing or training than horses not trained by Baffert. Examining the 7 sudden deaths over 24 months of FY 11-12 & FY 12-13, the results are even more dramatic.”
“Looking only at racing sudden deaths for Baffert (2 deaths, 2512 starts) there is an incidence of 0.80 deaths/1,000 race starts (95% CI 0.10-2.88). Racing sudden deaths for non-Baffert horses (21 deaths, 199,637 starts) has an incidence of 0.11 deaths/1,000 race starts (95% CI 0.07-0.16). Baffert trained horses that experienced sudden death during a race have a 7.57 (95% CI 1.77-32.28; p=0.006) times greater incidence of sudden death than horses not trained by Baffert.”
Beyond belief – yet apparently there isn’t anything atypical happening in Baffert’s barn — just a poor unlucky sod.
Necropsy reports revealed that the main cause of death was cardiac failure with four of the seven horses succumbing to this fate.
Of the remaining three, two deaths were linked to rodenticide toxicosis (rat poisoning), one presumptive in nature, and the other definitive.
In one case a 2YO colt affected by EPM (Equine Protozoal Myelitis) caused by the parasite Sarcocystis, typically not associated with sudden death, was also found to exhibit severe hemorrhage of mesenertic vessels, a common symptom of rat poisoning. Regrettably there was no liver tissue available from this horse to test for the presence of rodenticide.
The other horse, a 3YO gelding suffered massive thoracic and abdominal hemorrhage of unknown etiology but presumed to be rodenticide toxicosis – in this case a rodenticide was detected in the liver tissue. The seventh and final horse in the series of sudden death incidents was a 5YO mare reputed to have died due to severe pulmonary hemorrhage and edema, otherwise known as EIPH – Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage. See http://goo.gl/SlmxAF.
Why was a horse afflicted with chronic and severe EIPH even racing? Other jurisdictions around the globe simply do not condone this. This is nothing short of negligence.
Despite the sudden and grave nature of these deaths, nothing out of the ordinary was found in the urine samples. Some urine samples showed no presence of foreign substances while typical equine medications were detected in others; phenylbutazone, furosemide (Lasix), flunixin, diclofenac, nandrolone (found naturally in unaltered ales) and clenbuterol in the urine of a horse in training therefore permissible under current medication rules.
The most important finding of the toxicology testing was the identification of the rodenticide diphacinone in the liver tissue of the 3YO gelding who died of massive internal hemorrhage in both his thorax and abdomen without evidence of a major vessel failure.
Diphacinone is an anticoagulant rodenticide and so reduces the body’s ability to form clots in the blood. What is interesting is that the only rodenticide Hollywood Park uses is bromodiolone in sealed traps leaving questions as to where the diphacinone came from. See http://goo.gl/SlmxAF.
There is more than obvious reason to question this, yet this too was written off as insignificant and without suspicion. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortuitously for Baffert, the livers of only two of the other horses were available for screening both of which tested negative for the rat poison, leaving 4 others with unknown status, one of which clearly died from symptoms consistent with rodenticide.
There was, as expected, myriad routine prescription medications and supplements dispensed by veterinarians in the Baffert barn (e.g. Clenbuterol, Adequan, Methocarbamol, Lasix, Phenylbutazone, Adjunct Bleeder medications, an assortment of vitamins etc.) however the single most bewildering medication that stands out is Baffert’s persistent use of Thyro-L (levothyroxine), a medication to treat hypothyroidism, in all of his horses. Repeat, all of his horses.
The standard cornucopia of medications deemed necessary in this drug-laden sport.
Part 2 tomorrow.
© Int’l Fund for Horses