With exception of the latest findings in equine research, 12 panelists spoke on many divergent themes. Little of it will come as news to industry people and serious fans of the sport, but it was an important message that racing sent to the nation: We care about the sport and we’ve made progress. But now we’re at the crossroads and we need help.
And by year's end they may get it--in the form of racing legislation.
Not all have or will agree that racing needs or wants intervention from federal regulators. But the recurring hearing theme was something is not working and that it’s been broken for decades, since the last time the industry went to Washington and promised it could get the job done on issues of serious concern to everyone tethered to a thoroughbred.
If the record doesn’t confirm that fact, yesterday’s hearing underscored that racing hasn’t lived up to its charter.
The existence of claiming races is responsible, too, by making it possible for owners to discard their damaged goods that continue racing for someone else via the use of syringes filled with medication, legal and otherwise, that blocks pain and enables horses to run as fast as they can for as long as they can.
Certain conclusions may be drawn by examining the comments of the panelists. Some were more vociferous than others while others appeared more interested in the maintaining of the status quo, focusing on incremental progress that pales when held up to the glare of racing’s major problems.
It became clear that the first major step racing must take in correcting the problems relating to equine health and public perception is to adopt a zero tolerance policy on drugs. “It’s gotten out of hand,” said Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg. “Steroids, EPO, clenbuterol, you’ve got to keep up with the McCoys.”
“One morning I told a vet at Keeneland I don’t want my horses on anything,” said breeder and Kentucky Derby-winning owner Arthur Hancock.
“ ‘But you want to win, don’t you, Arthur?’ ”
“Time was when you saw a vet only when you needed one or had a horse in a race. Now they’re at the barn every day. They make significant profits by convincing trainers who then convince owners [that drugs are necessary]”
“A study was conducted on 22,000 horses racing on Lasix and it was learned that they raced faster, earned more money, and finished in the top three more often,” said Dr. Lawrence Soma of Pennsylvania University. “Our studies found that furosemide does not prevent Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage [bleeding] and, [like anabolic steroids], enhances performance.”
“Anabolic steroids are not [as bad as] corticosteroids,” said Allie Conrad of Canter Mid-Atlantic, whose life work is to re-home and re-train infirm horses. “Horses are dying every day. We get no [funding] from racing itself. Claiming races make [abuses] possible [via the use of] Lasix, Bute and corticosteroids that get injected directly into the joints.
“Racing doesn’t count the horses that die in my barn. They come to me lethargic, depressed, with weight loss, or hair loss. Caring for horses needs to be a first thought, not an afterthought.”
It has been said often that the game has been studied to death, but more study is needed in the areas of breeding, injury, and synthetic surfaces. Those issues, and especially sales practices, demand greater transparency.
“We need tests that can detect bio-markers, the presence of anti-bodies from previous injuries,” said Dr. Wayne McIlwraith of Colorado University. “We have seen that micro damage leads to catastrophic damage.”
“There have been studies indicating that synthetic surfaces have had some promising results, but more study is needed on track maintenance,” said equine orthopedist Dr. Sue Stover.
“Right now, the On-Track Injury Reporting Program is voluntary but it should be required,” said Mary Scollay, DVM. “Medication use must be studied. Data analysis on [catastrophic injury] has been [near] impossible.”
Mirroring Van Berg’s comments, Richard Shapiro, Chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, believes that unsoundness can be bred out of race horses: “If you establish a zero tolerance policy on drug use, the unsoundness issue will go away. Pharmacologicals, by masking infirmities with therapeutics, have hurt racing. Horses are making far fewer starts.”
Even if ridding the sport of drugs means that horses won’t be able to run, thereby addressing the breakdown problem, it starts at the sales where caveat emptor is the buy word. “The use of pre-sale surgery on horses who are not correct [is an issue],” said Hancock. “No one knows about the insertion of screws and wires. We talked about this in 1980 and nothing’s happened.”
“There must be documentation,” said Jess Jackson, owner of Horse of the Year Curlin. “There must be a trail of ownership, of complete medical records so that any buyer could see a horse’s complete history. The industry takes baby steps instead of giant strides. I was the only dissenter out of 40 members on an ownership panel that voted down [documentation requirements].
Watching the hearings, there was a sense that not everyone wanted drastic change or government intervention. “We’d like to see the industry police itself, if we can,” said Jockey Club CEO Alan Marzelli. “We have no power to enforce rule uniformity.”
Marzelli’s answers appeared evasive when he was asked if American breeding should be regulated like it is overseas, why there were no similar rules for sound breeding principles in this country. “Twenty-seven percent of our horses are bought by foreign interests,” was his reply.
Alex Waldrop, CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, has been extremely vocal on a sexy issue, calling for a ban on the use of anabolic steroids by 2009. His statements focused on the progress of the past.
“We’re a consensus builder. We represent 65 tracks, 40 horsemen’s groups and a million fans. The NTRA has been an important catalyst in making strides. We can act quickly and are no longer rudderless. I want to stress we don’t need another layer of regulation.”
“A public outcry has created a groundswell of support for change,” said racing commentator Randy Moss. “The NTRA has a lot of talented people but has no teeth to mandate changes. You see a lot of words like ‘we support,’ ‘we strongly urge,’ but no mandate.”
Jackson spoke clearly and cogently on racing issues. Jackson apparently prefers that an anabolic steroid ban extend beyond racing and training, “anything that alters the appearance of horses in any way.” Then he added:
“We can’t get organized because there’s no leadership. Owners invest $4 billion a year and get $1.4 billion back. I’m an eighth generation horseman. I opposed the use of Bute when it was originally proposed. Congress needs to do two things: Ban all drugs. Trainers are convinced [they need drugs] by the vets and vets must be disciplined. The problem comes from the seller.
“No steroids, enhancers, Lasix or Bute. Drugs mask other drugs and science can’t keep up with the ethics dealing with drugs. Second, we need a new draft of the Interstate Horseracing Act [permitting interstate simulcasting] eliminating two words.
“The regulation refers to owners and trainers. Eliminate ‘and trainers’. Trainers work for the owners. Why give power to the agents? Trainers are under the thumb of the tracks for stalls. Owners can unite themselves.
“We need to study breeding; we don’t need more inbreeding. I go to South America [to find stamina outcrosses]. We need a league, and that league needs a commissioner. Please, Congress help us.”
He might not have to ask twice.