I was training a weanling filly the other day and was struck by how she had shaped herself into a metaphor for racing. She will go sideways and backward, but, stubbornly to the point of frustration, never forward.
This metaphor has come to mind often since it hit me between the ears. Everywhere one looks, it seems, we are struck by wrong-headedness, arrogance even, as we thumb our noses at the rest of the world. “We know what we are doing. We have a better way,” we seem to be saying, even while our racing industry appears to be declining faster than just about any other country’s.
The rejection of a ban on race-day furosemide (Salix) in this country is but one example. We are the only major racing jurisdiction in the world to allow it, if you count Canada as part or “our” circuit. Why is that?
Yes, it stops bleeding in somewhere between 20% and 80% of horses racing in this country, the experts tell us. If that is so, why aren’t 20% to 80% of foreign runners “ruled off” for bleeding? The answer appears to be that the bleeding in all but a very few cases is not serious enough to warrant such action. In fact, other experts tell us, almost all athletes, equine and human, suffer some degree of bleeding during stressful exercise.
What is generally accepted is that it is a performance enhancement drug (which is why foreign horses use it when they race in the Breeders’ Cup). Also conceded by even the staunchest of furosemide fans is that it dilutes urine so that it becomes more difficult to detect other legal and illegal medications, which is only part of the reason foreign regulators do not allow it. It also strips away electrolytes, including potassium, sodium, chloride, calcium, and magnesium. Replacing those vital electrolytes cannot be achieved overnight, which means our horses race less because they require a longer recovery time. Also, there is a significantly increased risk to the health of the animal if furosemide is administered at the same time as corticosteroids, according to my veterinary texts.
And yet, when a foreign regulator striving to establish an international medication standard suggested recently that the U.S. ban race-day furosemide, his advice was promptly rejected by state racing commissioners and some leading horsemen.
We have also disdained calls for disallowing race-day phenylbutazone, which masks injuries and increases risks to animals and their riders. In addition, the universal finding is that Bute causes stomach and mouth ulcers, but this seems to carry little weight with regulators and veterinarians who regularly insist they have the best interests of the animal at heart.
Another practice found in this country and universally avoided overseas is the use of ponies in warm-ups. As well as being another monetary tax on the owner, ponies restrict the ability of the athlete to stretch out and, well, warm up. In other countries, it is common to see un-ponied starters gallop out vigorously before a race. In this country, most starters barely reach more than a gentle trot before approaching the starting gate. Can this be good for the athlete?
And that brings me to the general sense of denial in the U.S. racing establishment that anything can be done nationally to solve racing’s most pressing problem, according to its fans: race-day medication. The repetitive finding that fans, existing and potential, are turned off by the perception that cheating and doping are widespread is universally offered lip service, if not ignored, by those charged with guiding this sport.
The defeatist argument that 38 different racing jurisdictions will never agree on uniform, consistent medication testing and penalties for rule violations seems to nullify the very reason for the existence of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which lists as its mission statement and vision: “To protect and uphold the integrity of the pari-mutuel sports of horse racing, dog racing, and jai-alai through an informed membership, by encouraging forceful and uniform regulation, by promoting the health and welfare of the industry through various programs and projects.”
Doesn’t that sound like it should cover most of what ails racing when it comes to medication? Apparently not.
As my weanling filly is teaching me, going forward can be a scary thing. Much easier to shake your head and go sideways and backward. Even if it is the path of frustration and failure.
Graeme Beaton, a retired international business journalist, breeds and races from his farm in Pennsylvania