Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Image: Zayat Stables.

Despite a Triple Crown all that glitters is not gold in American horse racing (Part 1)

by JANE ALLIN

Part 1 of 3

After almost four decades, and several generations of racing fans, the drought has finally ended.

On June 7, 2015 American Pharoah thundered down the stretch at Belmont Park effortlessly dominating his competitors winning the Belmont by a rousing 5 ½ lengths to become the 12th Triple Crown Champion – the first since Affirmed swept the triple scorecard 37 long years ago.

Many said it would never be done again, many contended that the grueling race schedule should be changed and others voiced the lame excuse of the fresh-horse dilemma – “the coward’s way out” – terminology coined by disgruntled owner Steve Coburn when America’s sweetheart – California Chrome’s – endeavor to bring home the Crown was dashed by the lightly-raced Tonalist on the ominous 1 ½ mile main track dubbed “Big Sandy.

Since 1978 Belmont’s deep and sandy composition together with its wide sweeping turns has denied 12 of the previous 13 hopefuls who came up short in the third jewel of the elusive Triple Crown.

But people forget that there was also a 25-year drought between the time Citation captured the Triple Crown in 1948 and the great Secretariat’s brilliant performance in 1973. It takes a special kind of horse to meet the challenge and succeed; especially a horse bred in this day and age where horses are genetically programmed for speed rather than endurance and robustness.

And according to Gary Stevens who rode 7th place Tale of Verve in the Belmont, apparently American Pharoah “is” that special horse.

“To be honest with you, the second stride out of the gate — my horse broke really well, and he’s not a speed horse at all, but he got a flyer at the start — and second jump out of there, Victor [Espinoza] was gone,” he said of American Pharoah’s jockey. “He angled straight to the fence, and reached up and took a hold of American Pharoah, and the race was over with the third jump out of the starting gate.

“I mean, literally,” he added. “It was over with. And everybody was running for second money”

Stevens, so there was no confusion, clarified further that, instantly out of the break, he knew the race was over.

“Instantly. Instantly,” he repeated. “It was done like in .5 seconds. Everybody was running for second. I mean the horse was so talented, he just outclassed everybody.” [1]

Indeed it was the best of times for North American horse racing!

But was it, or more precisely, is it?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – the message in these famous lines seems a fitting comparison to the diminishing lifeblood of a sport gone wrong – the troubled and piteous disorder of North American Thoroughbred Racing.

Can this long-awaited milestone in the “sport of kings” possibly save the controversial and much maligned horse racing industry?

Of course, in the days and weeks ahead there will be bountiful celebrations within the racing world as well as the ever-present optimism that this will be the much-needed stimulus to revitalize the fan base and re-capture the glory of the “good old days”.

The “marketing” of America Pharaoh is already in full swing – the cover of ESPN, the cover of Vogue, sponsorship deals with Monster energy drinks and a private-airplane membership company called Wheels Up. The sky’s the limit. Sadly however, and with heavy heart, I fear those days are long gone – a distant memory.

Regardless of your opinion on the subject of horse racing you certainly cannot take anything away from American Pharoah. He is a magnificent creature and has rightly earned his accolades.

Notwithstanding the debauchery of the racing industry, anyone who chooses to rain on the parade of a racehorse is pitiful – an innocent horse without a voice or choice in the matter. The same thing however can’t be said of his connections.

But let’s face it, as much as this Triple Crown delivered the anticipated brouhaha over the course of its 5-week duration, in the broader view it has little chance of resurrecting a dying sport plagued with myriad issues, most notably, to the public at least, the insidious exploitation of the horses at its mercy.

It is not simply a one-horse show; what about all the others who equally run their hearts out on the track? The ones who break down and are euthanized on a daily basis, the low-end claiming races, claiming the lives of tired, abused horses forced to run with the intent of “unloading” them because they aren’t turning a profit and finally the ultimate end of the line – the slaughterhouse.

And despite the pageantry of American Pharoah’s history-making day this month it was in fact a day like all the others before it.

Helwan, pictured winning the Prix Crystal Palace at Maisons-Laffitte last year, ridden by Frankie Dettori. © Al Shaqab Racing.
Helwan, pictured winning the Prix Crystal Palace at Maisons-Laffitte last year, ridden by Frankie Dettori. © Al Shaqab Racing.

Lost in all the Triple Crown hype, Helwan, a 4-year old French horse racing on Lasix for the first time because it is prohibited in Europe, broke down in the 4th race, was euthanized on the track and vanned off only hours before the ultimate race, the one that everyone was waiting for, the one that attracted the big crowds that fateful day.

Helwan’s death marked the 10th such incident on the track at Belmont Park since January 16th of this year. Nobody knows how many others met the same fate during training and exercising regimens – according to the racing industry those deaths don’t count.

Helwan’s death certainly didn’t grace the headlines of racing’s most prominent sport syndicates. But that’s to be understood. This is North American racing and the reality is that this is by no means an isolated incident. Far from it.

This carnage happens every day on racetracks across the country. Death is the dark side of the sport that no one in the industry wants to acknowledge, that no one wants to report or keep records of, that no one wants the public to hear about and that everyone wants to forget about and just keep sweeping it under the rug.

For anyone truly interested in grasping the scope of this ugly truth they should visit Patrick Battuello’s blog where the deaths of racehorses all over America’s tracks are comprehensively documented based on unadulterated facts, not opinion or bias Horse Racing Wrongs estimates that upwards of 2,000 horses die while racing or training on American racetracks annually.

Regrettably, there is only one reason for the decline in this once celebrated sports venue – clearly, the racing industry is their own worst enemy. No uniform drug regulations, lack of sufficient punishment for cheaters, and the public’s perception of both corruption and the cruelty inflicted on these young horses by their hypothetical “caretakers” tend to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth, particularly in this heightened day of animal cruelty.

So where do you begin?

There is so much, so wrong, with NA Thoroughbred racing it is difficult to even contemplate the unending problems that persist and continue to surface without resolve. Most, however, all stem from a common theme that is inextricably intertwined with two variables – the greed factor – money – and the inexcusable treatment and abuse of the very living, breathing creatures that make the “sport” viable. In essence the use of the horse as a means to that end – the almighty dollar.

Consider the term “sportsmanship” and the picture of what North American horse racing isn’t becomes unequivocal.

“Sportsmanship – an aspiration or ethos that a sport or activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, with proper consideration for fairness, ethics, respect, and a sense of fellowship with one’s competitors.”

Doesn’t remotely sound like anything horse racing embodies. Not in the least.

“Horseracing a sport? If not for the gravity involved, it would be absurd.

No, horseracing is but exploitation of a weaker species for the most shameful of reasons – $2 bets. To those who sustain this sordid business, we say: Slake those gambling urges with decidedly inanimate slots and scratch-offs; leave the horses out of it.

To those who trade in equines in the pursuit of cash and fleeting glory, we say: Find a commodity that doesn’t bleed; take up a hobby that can’t cry out in pain. Enough.” – Patrick Battuello [2]

There have been many reasons cited for the decline in racing – other forms of gambling, government involvement, takeout issues, corruption, poor marketing and coverage, fewer horses racing, smaller fields and fewer races, and management in racing, among others. [3]

But in the public’s eye, drugs and exploitation of the horses – the life force of the industry – are the epicenter of what is wrong with North American racing. People making money off the backs of injured and dead racehorses, many of them just babies, too young to be racing in the first place.

Horse injected with syringe. Stock image.
Stock image.

DRUGS, DRUGS AND MORE DRUGS — THE CHEMICAL HORSE

The racing industry has its own agenda when it comes to the controversial use of drugs in NA racing. And it is not so much the illegal drugs – frog juice, cobalt, anabolic steroids, or the next elusive concoction that will go undetected – all the prohibited Class 1, 2 and 3 violations.

The biggest issue surrounding drugs is the alleged innocuous “therapeutics” and the allowance of threshold limits for certain medications on race day.

Deplorably the resounding message delivered to the public ear is 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.

According to those revered individuals with “expert knowledge” the racing industry is a model to be held in high esteem amongst sporting venues when it comes to drug testing and regulation.

It is doubtful that 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.

Realistically it is simply more statistical propaganda to fuel their debate and maintain the status quo – the status quo that supports the pervasive use of these drugs because they function as performance enhancers while at the same mask pain and pre-existing injuries.

Sadly, yet conveniently for the trainers, none of these drugs is illegal – salix/lasix, phenylbutazone, clenbuterol, NSAIDS, thyroxine, and the likes of others – and according to “experts’ are merely harmless therapeutics.

Harmless? This is so far from the truth it screams hypocrisy.

Used properly, therapeutic medications alleviate pain and promote healing. However in the racing industry many trainers use these powerful drugs on a daily basis often in combination with several other potent medications which in itself can be lethal.

More often than not these drugs are used to enable injured horses to train and race before their injuries are completely healed– this has long-lasting debilitating effects on the horse.

Moreover when racing on compromised limbs there is an exceptionally high risk that this will lead to further injury and hence require ever more powerful drugs to keep the horse racing.

Many choose drugs over rest and rehabilitation to maintain the horse’s racing value because if a horse isn’t racing they aren’t turning a profit either.

“If the public knew how many medications these horses were administered after entry time, I don’t think they would tolerate it,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board. [4]

Shamefully, the widespread use of pharmaceuticals is unique to North American racing. By far the leading debate is the use of Lasix/Salix – no other major racing jurisdiction in the world permits the use of it on racing day and as the story goes none of these horses is dropping dead on the tracks or coming home with gallons of blood pouring form their nostrils.

That said Lasix is far from the only therapeutic that is part and parcel to the destructive nature of America’s addiction to drugs.

In fact many believe that the public debate surrounding Lasix is overshadowing efforts to make changes within the industry that would be more critical to racehorse safety and welfare. Indeed, there are approximately 25 medications now approved by the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) for therapeutic use in race horses. [5]

Some unfamiliar with the underside of the racing industry may think that the insidious use of drugs is relegated to the bottom ranks within the hierarchy of racing however this is not the case.

One need only look as far as the connections to this year’s Triple Crown winner American Pharoah – Bob Baffert.

And Baffert is not alone. Other high profile individuals who train horses owned by some of the world’s wealthiest individuals, horses considered the “best” in the industry who run almost exclusively in coveted graded stakes, are all part of this crowd.

A look at three of the most prominent trainers in Thoroughbred racing is illustrative of the atrocious crimes committed against these innocent horses.

Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen and Todd Pletcher are all are recognised repeat offenders whose actions in their quest to win literally bring tears to my eyes. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more who perpetrate these contraventions on a regular basis.

Part 2 of 3 tomorrow.

[1] http://washington.cbslocal.com/2015/06/10/losing-jockey-american-pharoah-if-challenged-would-have-broken-secretariats-record/
[2] http://horseracingwrongs.com/the-big-lie/
[3] http://therail.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/reasons-for-the-decline-of-horse-racing/
[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/30/us/casino-cash-fuels-use-of-injured-horses-at-racetracks.html
[5] http://arcicom.businesscatalyst.com/assets/arci-controlled-therapeutic-medication-schedule—version-2.1.pdf

6 thoughts on “Despite a Triple Crown all that glitters is not gold in American horse racing (Part 1)”

  1. Thank You Jane for such a succinct article on such massive issues in horse racing. Not only does the horse racing industry not have uniform drug regulations. Few states have no regulations on the use and abuse of the whip. Take for example the Kentucky Derby, AP was beaten about 32 times in 35 seconds. The most prominent state got horse Racjng permits thus blatant, cruel, and inhumane treatment of a racehorse. This example exemplifies the racehorse as merely a commodity – a profit slave if you will. At that point, one could think that AP was set-up to win because now they could say “see the public flogging didn’t affect him at all.” Just saying.

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    1. Thanks Gina – excellent point about the whipping. I would like to see racing ban them along with all the drugs. Ugh.

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  2. Excellent.
    What I find amazing is that blatant animal abuse, cheating, and other crimes are gotten away with. I don’t know of any other industry where law breakers are tolerated and even given “awards”. In fact, the whole industry is a disgrace to our society all the way from the breeding end to pumping up 2 yr. olds in training with steroids for the sales and the shilling that takes place at these events…

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