Sept. 25, 2019
Doping To Win
By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D
Two New York Times investigative reporters, Walt Bogdanich and Joe Drape,conducted an in-depth, months-long investigation of drug use, injuries, and death rates of horses in American horse racing. Their article appeared in the New York Times March 25, “Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys: Death and Disarray At America’s Race Tracks.” Their report shows high incidences of injury or death to both race horses and jockeys around the U.S., and a high incidence of illegal, performance enhancing drugs used on race horses. Terry Gross interviewed then about their report on NPR’s Fresh Air, May 10, 2012.
They analyzed “three years of race reports from tracks around the country to determine the frequency of breakdowns or signs of injury at each track.” The data show the estimated rates at the 62 tracks where Thoroughbreds or Quarter Horses race. Arranged by state, their data are available at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/03/24/us/for-horse-and-jockey-risks-vary.html
They concluded: “On average, 24 horses die each week at race tracks across America. Many are inexpensive horses racing with little regulatory protection in pursuit of bigger and bigger prizes. These 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. … Industry practices continue to put animal and rider at risk. A computer analysis of data from more than 150,000 races, along with injury reports, drug test results and interviews, shows an industry still mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation.”
The highest incident rates shown are in New Mexico: at Ruidoso Downs, 13.9/1,000 starts; at Sunland Park, 12.8/1,000 starts; and Zia Park, 12.6/1,000 starts. In fact, Ruidoso Downs had the nation’s highest overall incident rate (2009-2011). Their data showed that Quarter Horses were more likely to break down during a race. The incident rate among racing Quarter Horses was highest at Sunland Park, 17.2/1,000 starts.
Their report linked higher incident rates with racetracks that have added casino gambling to their operations. This results in higher purses, as gambling revenues are added to purses, which provides an incentive for trainers to race unfit horses.
Regarding illegal drugs, they reported: “Since 2009, records show, trainers at United States tracks have been caught illegally drugging horses 3,800 times, a figure that vastly understates the problem because only a small percentage of horses are actually tested. In the same period, 6,600 horses broke down or showed signs of injury. Since 2009, the incident rate has risen.”
On May 10, 2012 the samereporters revealed trainer Doug O’Neill’s history of using illegal drugs on his race horses. However, they wrote that none of his history of drug violations nor “damaged horses impeded his rise in the ranks of racing.” He is the trainer of I’ll Have Another, the 3-year-old winner of the 138th Kentucky Derby.
They report, “Of the top 20 trainers in the United States — measured by purses won in 2011 — only two, Christophe Clement and Graham Motion, were never cited for a medication violation, according to the Racing Commission International database.”
Response to the report:
On May 10, 2012 the Jockey Club and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association started an advocacy website Cleanhorseracing.org dedicated to the reform of medication rules. Numerous articles are posted on this website about the drug use controversy in horse racing, and the effects of particular drugs on performance.
The Steeplechase Times (ST) posted a response to The NY Times piece on May 8, 2012 about the need for racing, not journalism, to change. ST’s Joe Clancy wrote: “People can talk about drug-free racing all they want, but that’s not really possible. Like human athletes, racehorses receive special care. They get vitamins, supplements, anti-inflammatories, digestive aids, muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, energy-boosters, muscle-builders, respiratory assistance and so on. Racehorses undergo acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, ultrasound, shockwave, magnetic, heat and cold treatments. The myth of hay, oats and water is just that – a myth – when it comes to racehorses.
“In the U.S., each state sets medication and other rules. The result is an invitation to push the envelope, to keep up with other trainers…A national medication rule will give racing a foundation, something on which to build. Such a concept would also provide the beginning of a plan, a first step toward a way out of this medication boondoggle American racing created for itself.”
In the reporters’ published data, one mid-south track, Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, is shown to have one of the lower incident rates in the U.S.: 3.2/1,000 starts. Jennifer Hoyt, media relations manager at Oaklawn, responded to the Mid-South Horse Review’s (MSHR) request for safety information and a response to the NY Times report.
Oaklawn is very proud of our safety record and for us, even one horse’s death is too many. While we did have some unfortunate incidents during the meet, we continue to work on improving our track and safety procedures. Some of things we do, include:
· Adopting Racing Medication & Testing Consortium (RMTC) Guidelines
· Installing a safety rail (Should be noted that not all accredited tracks have a safety rail)
· Conducting weekly track safety meetings with horsemen.
· Oaklawn is one of a few tracks that has a soil analysis lab on site with trained personnel to operate it.
· Not allowing steroids
· Not allowing toe grabs
· We employ the Super test and not just for graded stakes
All jockeys and exercise riders are required to wear helmets and safety vests. The assistant starters are required to wear safety vests.
We do have a test barn where the winner of every race and the second-place finisher and/or beaten favorite gets tested. This includes collecting blood and urine samples.
Oaklawn and the Arkansas H.B.P.A. raised nearly $10,000 during the meet to support Thoroughbred retirement and retraining efforts. Not only are we committed to keeping horses safe at our track while racing, but also after they have finished their racing careers.
Tennessee Equine Hospital’s Monty McInturff, DVM responded to MSHR’s inquiry about drug issues and soundness of steeplechase race horses:
“We have been caring for the Iroquois Steeplechase race horses as a volunteer veterinary medical team for over 20 years. The horses are bred to run and they love their jobs. They are highly conditioned athletes and are cared for at a high level. There are monitors at each race that evaluate the horses for drug use. Also, as race veterinarians, we make sure all competitors are sound and healthy before the competition. I am not aware of any violations or unsoundness at this race meet and feel that the horses compete fairly and safely.”
MSHR interviewed Phillip D. Hammock, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVS at Countryside Equine Hospital in Louisville, TN near Knoxville. Dr. Hammock worked for a number of years as a race track veterinarian and continues to work on a large number of Thoroughbred racehorses at farms and sales throughout the United States.
“The primary problem seeming to effect horse racing in the US is the lack of a central governing body. Rules vary state to state and in some cases racing venue to racing venue. In the rest of the world, rules governing racing, trainers, medications etc are pretty standard. We are still the only racing jurisdiction which allows race day medication, to my knowledge.
The main drug we are discussing is Salix (Furosemide) which is a diuretic. This particular drug has been used on race day for several years in an attempt to decrease ‘bleeding’ or Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH), which commonly occurs in racehorses and less commonly in horses of other disciplines. Scientific studies evaluating the efficacy of this drug have shown a mixed bag of results, with the exception of the South African study which found horses receiving Salix performed better than when they didn’t receive the drug. The authors found the horses did indeed bleed less. This study supports the observation of the veterinary community in the U.S. that Salix is, indeed, a beneficial drug for treating EIPH in racehorses. One of the many problems we face is that 99% of horses starting a race in the U.S. now receive Salix. There seems to be a disconnect between treating horses that actually need the drug and treating everything that races because it is legal. This occurs for a variety of reasons, but trainers and owners like to win. Anything that might give them the slightest edge becomes the latest drug du jour.
“I don’t believe that illegal drug use is rampant in horse racing. However, there are only a handful of trainers who have never had a drug positive. I think this primarily stems from the numerous differences in protocol and rules from state to state. Many drug positives are simply ‘overages’ in microgram levels that have come about as our ability to test for and quantify drugs has improved.
“Horse racing is stratified. There are low level claiming races up to Grade 1 stakes. Drug use is seemingly more of a problem in the lower level races as they are not in the ‘public eye,’ or the horses just need all the help they can get in order to train and race. The major races such as the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, and Breeders’ Cup are typically televised and receive public attention via television, news print, and track attendance. The lesser races don’t receive this attention.
Many of the tracks struggle to make their business model work due to lack of revenue and, therefore, have to supplement the revenue with slot machines. A percentage of the money generated by slots is then targeted to purses for horse racing. Increased purse money results in increased field sizes and, in some cases, expanded racing. It also generates tax revenue for the states, so they are interested in continuing this expansion of gaming. Increased purses have resulted in some horses being entered in races in which they can’t or shouldn’t be competing. Racing venues such as Saratoga, Keeneland, and Delmar typically don’t have such issues. The entertainment value of the venues assures that quality racing exists which, in turn, results in great on-track attendance and fantastic wagering both on and off track. These tracks tend to mirror conditions found at many European, Asian and Australian tracks, with the exception being race day medication and ‘no gambling’ in Dubai.
“Race track veterinarians are usually always on the side of the horse. Race track veterinarians founded the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) and they continue to play an active role in this organization. The AAEP has produced numerous recommendations to the race track community to address break downs and medications and continues to play an active national role in making recommendations to race tracks that are always in the best interests of the horse. This being said, though, veterinarians work at the race track to make money. It is how they make a living. Treating horses, diagnosing lameness, radiographing, ultrasounding, endoscoping, interpreting blood work, and selling medications is how they stay in business. Are there any bad apples in the basket, who would knowingly administer a horse illegal drugs on race day at a trainers request? I’m sure there are, but I’m also sure they are few and far between. I have the utmost respect for my colleagues and my profession in this regard. I feel that the veterinary community is doing everything we can to help race tracks minimize the number of break downs, and are trying in every way to help determine how best to resolve the race day medication issue as it relates to the horse.
“What is a Milkshake? A milkshake is a combination of electrolytes and bicarbonate (baking soda). When a horse runs, the initial energy used by muscles is glycogen and oxygen. As the glycogen is depleted, the muscles switch to anaerobic (decreased oxygen) metabolism and the by-product of this process is lactic acid. As lactic acid builds up, the muscle experiences a decrease in performance or fatigue. Bi-carbonate helps to counteract the effects or ‘buffers’ the lactic acid so the muscle continues to perform at normal efficiency for a longer period of time. So, a milkshake is ‘beneficial’ for an athlete, similar to Gatorade. The problem is that the bi-carb must be administered a few hours before a race via naso-gastric tube. In Australia and several other racing jurisdictions, it is illegal to ‘tube’ a horse within 24 hours of a race. The other conundrum is whether all horses entered be administered a certain amount of bi-carb? Are we going to begin adding BC to the race entries alongside the L (salix) and B (Phenylbutzone) so the betting public will know who has been treated? Currently, the U.S. tests total CO2 (carbon dioxide, which increases with Bi-carb treatment) following varying protocols either before or after racing.
“Racing did exist in the US without horses receiving race day medications and it continues to flourish in other countries where a ‘no race day medication’ rule is strictly enforced. In my opinion, the sport can return to this pre-drug era and offer a high quality product, but this is unlikely to happen without the oversight of a central governing body.”
Update: The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission scheduled a town hall meeting for June 5 to discuss the proposed three-year phase-out of the race-day drug furosemide, anti-bleeding medication also known as Salix or Lasix.
Under the proposal, as of January 1, 2013, no Salix would be permitted on race day in graded or listed stakes for foals of 2011 or to any other horse of any age that is entered to compete in a graded or listed stakes against a horse of the 2011 foal crop.
As of January 1, 2014, Salix wouldn’t be permitted in graded or listed stakes for foals of 2011 and 2012 or for any other horse of any age that is entered to compete in a graded or listed stakes against a horse of the 2011 or 2012 foal crops.
As of January 1, 2015, no horses could be administered Salix in graded or listed stakes. The prohibition wouldn’t apply to any other races in Kentucky, the Bloodhorse reported.
Walt Bogdanich, Joe Drape, Dara L. Miles and Griffin Palmer, 2012. “Death and disarray at America's racetracks:
Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys.” The New York Times, March 24. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/us/death-and-disarray-at-americas-racetracks.html?ref=waltbogdanich
“Horse Racing: America’s Most Dangerous Game?” Fresh Air, May 10, 2010
Drape, Joe and Walt Bogdanich, 2012. “A Derby Win, but a Troubled Record for a Trainer.” New York Times. May 10. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/11/sports/trainer-of-kentucky-derby-winner-has-a-troubled-record.html?_r=1&hp=&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1336741343-/ThiMI8xiywA6MkchnnaIw
Clancy, Joe. Steeplechase Times. “Racing, not Journalism, needs to change.” http://www.st-publishing.com/cms2/index.php/the-outside-rail/2141-racing-not-journalism-needs-to-cha)
On “The Rail,” The New York Times Horse Racing Blog, Sid Gustafson, D.V.M., equine veterinarian specializing in thoroughbred sports medicine and equine behavior, regularly posts articles about race horses’ health issues.
Pierre-Louis Toutain, 2010. “Veterinary Medicines and Competition Animals: The Question of Medication Versus Doping Control.”Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology
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