It's Time to Draw the Line - By Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Ed Whitfield

 (Originally published in the May 7, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

By U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY)

On the first Saturday in May, many Americans will turn their attention to Churchill Downs for the most exciting two minutes in sports. The best of horse racing will be on display for the 137th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). Away from the crowds, however, horse racing finds itself facing an unattractive reality. Too many of its equine athletes are overmedicated and doped. The Sport of Kings is no place for such a drug problem.

American horse racing stands apart from the rest of the world when it comes to permissive medication rules and tolerance of doping. Unlike other countries that ban race-day medications, racing jurisdictions here allow injecting horses just hours before post time. There are trainers who violate medication rules multiple times, seemingly with impunity. According to a recent Racing Commissioners International letter, one trainer has been sanctioned at least 64 times for various rule violations, including medication violations involving the Class 2 painkiller mepivacaine and the Class 3 drug clenbuterol. This tolerance of doping represents a shameful abuse of an iconic American animal, and it is time to put an end to it.

Anyone who goes to the track outside of a Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup race knows that attendance is down across the country. The decline is especially stark considering that horse racing was once the No. 1 spectator sport in the United States. One poll of sports industry insiders found that most think horse racing is in decline or dying. With the loss of fans comes a loss of revenue that ultimately sustains a $40 billion industry and 400,000 jobs nationwide. As current fans leave the sport, many potential new fans may never come to the track while doping is rampant.

Although a horse may need therapeutic medications from time to time, there is no excuse for injecting almost all Thoroughbreds to race. As RCI chairman William Koester rightly noted, that just does not pass the smell test with the public or anyone else. It is hard to believe that race day “anti-bleeder” medication does not affect how a horse runs when comments on past performance sheets highlight “first-time Lasix” as a betting angle. If race-day medication is essential for the welfare of the horse, why do countries in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East ban it? Why do foreign trainers who never race on anti-bleeder drugs abroad seem to always use it when competing here against our medicated horses?

While medicating sound horses on race day is concerning, the doping of sore horses is appalling. Sore and lame horses should not be raced. Feeling no pain, an injured horse on drugs may continue to charge down the track, endangering every horse and jockey in the race. Drugs may account for the fact that the U.S. horse fatality rate is more than three times higher than in comparable British flat racing. Trainers or anyone else caught doping racehorses should face stiff penalties, including fines and meaningful suspensions.

We reluctantly believe that Congressional action is needed to address this critical challenge facing the industry. Unlike other sports, horse racing lacks a governing body that can issue uniform medication rules and ban performance-enhancing drugs. That is why recent calls from the RCI and The Jockey Club to phase out race-day medication are not enough to save American horse racing. An existing law, the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978, should be amended to ban performance-enhancing drugs and require stiff penalties for doping. We plan to introduce legislation soon in the Congress that would do just that.

Congress enacted the IHA to protect and further horse racing. Through the IHA, Congress allowed the horse racing industry to conduct offtrack and Internet wagering across state lines, a unique benefit that no other gambling enterprise enjoys. Congress thus has an oversight responsibility when it comes to a drug problem that threatens the safety, integrity, and viability of the sport. We take this duty seriously. We also know how important drug reform is for those who make their living from the sport. Eliminating doping through the IHA will help bring integrity back to racing, benefiting everyone involved and, most importantly, the health and safety of the horses at the center of it all.

It is time to draw the line against performance-enhancing drugs in horse racing. 


Leave a Comment:

Karen in Indiana

I have two sons that are the demographic this industry wants to attract - in their early 20's, both single and both with discretionary income. When we've talked about horse racing and I ask them why they aren't interested, the first word out of their mouths is 'steroids'. With their limited knowledge of or contact with the sport, the one thing that sticks in their minds are the many trainers who have been charged with drug violations. They got a little interested when I fell in love with Big Brown, but the negative publicity that Rick Dutrow generated with his admissions of steroid use has probably made it impossible for them to try it again. The drug use in the industry is slowly killing it and has already made this sport irrelevant. If self-governing was going to happen, it would have years ago. The people involved in leadership in this industry have proven themselves incapable of it. I join you in your reluctant belief that it will take government involvement to effect positive change.

03 May 2011 12:59 PM

I believe that a horse should run on''hay and oats''..the over use of lasix is disturbing.I do think this issue needs to be looked at more as some horses do bleed and may need it to run but I am sure most do not need it.

As to bute and place at all on race day.If a horse is sore it should be rested not drugged.Bute too is over used..I guess all the drugs are over used..we do need to have some kind of uniform rules on the doping of horses..

I think if we asked them they would all agree.

03 May 2011 2:48 PM

Finally people are acknowledging the elephant in the room! And proposing to do something about it!

Let's be honest - a big part of this is that it's cheaper(less time consuming) to train horses short and then give them a shot of Lasix( a cheap medication) than it is to train them the way one needs to for cardio-pulmonary fitness, like they do in the rest of the world.

Sure there are a few horses that are real bleeders that no amount of conditioning will fix, but that's why we have a thing called selective breeding. Heck, nowadays there's probably a genetic marker for it.

And I can't even comment about the shame of the American racing fatality rate being three times higher than the British one. It's just too sad.

03 May 2011 2:56 PM

I agree with many of the sentiments expressed here-ex. too many equine athletes are overmedicated and doped-particularly that the doping of sore horses is appalling. But, my sole agenda is the protection of the horse, and I'd advise these lawmakers to better do their homework-ask for hearings, etc.-, BEFORE they introduce bills about subjects of which their knowledge is insufficient. To do otherwise would seem irresponsible, and could be construed as grandstanding or, perhaps, self-serving. Banning all race day medication could prove detrimental to the health and safety of the horse. Salix, for one, has been scientifically proven to be efficacious against EIPH, and EIPH is more greatly manifested at racing speeds. EIPH is debilitating, painful, and can result in chronic, long-term consequences for the horse. Many studies have also confirmed that the vast majority of American racehorses experience EIPH. I strongly doubt that its widespread incidence is confined to North America. Should this prove not to be the case-which I doubt- the reasons are likely apart from the erroneous argument of disparate (North American vs all others) genetics. Rather, if all others do experience significantly less EIPH, it is more likely due to their different racing conditions (turf vs dirt-i.e turf may cause less physical, thus less pulmonary strain; compete at generally slower speeds, etc.; or, and more likely, an assortment of non-raceday (and/or raceday) Salix substitutes are administered). It is also possible that these "others" experience more EIPH as a result of lack of availability of race day Salix. Before one assumes that the rest of the world is doing it better (for the horse), do some detailed research/investigation. Instead of attempting to pass some knee-jerk, public pleasing legislation (so often the case), try to find answers that are truly in the best interests of all (in this case-also the horses). Salix is one, but there may be other theraputic medications necessary for race day. GI ulcers are endemic to the housed/overfit racehorse. Often the equine stomach convolutes exceptionally at race speeds and/or racing conditions. Gastro-gard-type products help to minimize the damage wraught by this scenario. Lastly, it is disingenuous to suggest that racings' ever diminishing popularity owes much of this to the medication issue.          

03 May 2011 4:24 PM
Dawn in MN

It IS time to draw the line against performance-enhancing drugs.

Racing is lucky that a certain friend of mine isn't calling the shots.  I know very few people who follow Thoroughbred racing.  Most of my non-fan acquaintances cite break-downs, and race-fixing as the reasons they are not interested.  The certain friend of mine and I were discussing this issue just yesterday.  

My friend believes that all connections of horses caught with drug violations should be stiffly penalized.  The sanctions would ban from racing any future foals of the horse that tested positive.  My friend goes on to state that the sanction might even be extended to the other offspring of the stud that sired the horse that tests positive.  

He's not kidding.  He believes that this approach will prevent the use of performance enhancing drugs, and the practice of breeding to horses that pass along fragile legs and bleeding.  While I realize this is rather draconian, and will never happen, it does illustrate how bad drugs are for this sport.

04 May 2011 6:27 AM

Doesn't Congress have more pressing matters?  I mean really, $4.00+ a gallon for diesel and gas is just a little more important than a horse getting the equivalent of aspirin on race day.  

04 May 2011 6:47 AM
Dave Parker

This is OUTRAGEOUS !!! We do NOT want or need federal control of our race horses.  There are myriad drug regulations at the state and local level.  If you cannot use bute or Salix, you CANNOT run the majority of horses--what will you do with the thousands of unwanted thoroughbreds?  You'll also put the majority of horsemen and small tracks right out of business.  I think this is just a POWER GRAB by the Jockey Club to get cushy federal jobs.  NO FEDERAL REGULATION--the Jockey Club is not involved in the day to day racing.  Stop this needless legislation NOW.  It will truly be the end of horseracing in the U.S.  Period.

04 May 2011 5:05 PM

When a horse wins the Kentucky Derby on steroids,  then retires and creates more drug-dependent offspring, racing- for the fans- is over. The real looser is the whole Thoroughbred industry. These creatures are doped for racing, over-bred, then sent across the border to be slaughtered. R.I.P. Noble Thoroughbreds.

05 May 2011 10:03 PM
Stephi S.

I think this is a great idea, it should have been done years ago by the racing community itself. And for those who think that medication is necessary for a horse to race well, do remember that the great horses, such as Secretariat, Citation, Kelso, etc. all raced without any medication. They managed to do quite well.

Training on anti-inflammatory medication, which many trainers do, is stupid, to put it bluntly. Inflammation is the body's signal that something is wrong, the heat it generates should tip a trainer off to a problem with the horse, before it becomes an unsoundness. By masking the symptoms with Bute, trainers deprive themselves of the chance to catch a problem before it adversely affects the horse. Running a horse on Bute means that the horse will not feel the initial injury and keep running on it until the leg gives out. This is not responsible training. It used to be that if a horse showed heat in a leg, he was worked on by his groom, hours of rubbing liniment, hosed and/or iced and then bandaged. If the heat persisted, the horse was x-rayed. He was walked until there was no heat. Back in the day, if a horse was sore enough to need Bute, he was too sore to go to the track, he walked. Two reasons for this, one, there was obviously an injury that didn't need to be aggravated, and two, the horse would not feel it if the exercise damaged him further. So no horse trained or ran on Bute because it wasn't good for them. Then the attitude in racing changed. The big money started in and suddenly it became about winning and future stud fees, sales prices and not the welfare of the horses. Consequently, we have a stallion roster full of horses who were basically unsound, raced only a few times and then retired to stud to produce more unsound horses. Compare them to say, Bold Ruler, who raced 33 times in 2 and a half years. He retired early in his four year old campaign. He won 23 races and retired sound. He consequently sired 11 champions. Kelso, a great gelding, ran 63 races and won 39 of them. He was five time Horse of the Year. He raced from 1959-1966. He was retired due to a hairline fracture to the sesamoid. He went on to be a foxhunter and show jumper. And he did it all without Bute, or Lasix.

If we want the "Iron Horse" back, we have to stop medicating them to cover up weaknesses and start racing clean. Then we will have great horses again, like the old days. And back in the day, a trainer like Steve Assmussen would have been run out of racing for doping. These days, they just give out toothless warnings. Until we start being as strict about medication as the Europeans, we won't have sound horses or the respect of the international racing world. But never mind that, let's do it because it's the best thing for the horses. Without them, there would be no racing.

06 May 2011 10:19 AM
Needler in Virginia

To Dave Parker: The racing industry has been throwing this particular football around for years and is now in worse shape than ever. Trainers with multiple violations getting tiny wrist slaps and then appealing the slaps for the next umpteen years so, in effect, there is NO penalty for drug violations... see story this BH re trainer Mullins (YE GODS!!) FIFTY separate racing jurisdictions with miniscule differences in rules and enforcement, but almost no cooperation (OR ENFORCEMENT) among them. No agreement among racing entities regarding drugs, testing OR enforcement......well done racing! Talk about pooping in your own nest...........

NO WONDER THE GORILLA IS NOW IN THE ROOM! Racing has proven it cannot keep its' own house in order. Is anyone surprised this bill has been introduced? NOT ME! There are many who have been saying that if racing doesn't fix itself, someone else will.........that someone is now here!

And are you serious?? A power grab? WHO in their right mind would want this sort of mess? Nope, racing has created this nightmare and will be forced to follow the rules it SAYS it has. Now it will have 'em and be required to follow 'em, and it's about damned time!

Cheers and safe trips.

09 May 2011 8:02 PM

And even these politicians will not name a trainer with 60+ positives! Your part of the problem! The racing publications like the bloodhorse should have a column on all trainers this week (as they are all weekly publications) who had a positive test. But of course since those are the top trainers in the game the Bloodhorse and T B Times will keep it all hush hush, just as you politicians did in your righteous column. Cowards

14 May 2011 3:11 AM

what's appalling to me is that two members of the U.S. Congress introducing a horse racing bill based on such colossal ignorance as expressed in this post.  I sincerely hope for the good of the horse u two will educate yourself on the subject before proceeding.

14 May 2011 8:32 PM

I will just be the cynic here. Where are the hearings/studies that were conducted to determine that raceday medication should be permitted? Are there any such studies/hearings?

If there are, have they shown that raceday medication has a uniform effect upon all horses treated? If the effect is not uniform, the bettor becomes the sucker.

17 May 2011 7:44 AM

I don't know if the Govt. should be the ones to ride herd on the racing industry. They can't even run the country and are not known for honesty & integrity over half the time. I do think drugs in racing must be bannned. ALL DRUGS. This is the only way to level the playing field and it IS one of the best ways to protect the horse.

There are plenty of laws made, then more laws are made & piled up on top of the first just ADHEAR to the laws you do make and ENFORCE THEM STRONGLY...otherwise it'll do no good & cost a lot of money needed elsewhere, be too many hold-ups and wasted time.Too many ways for the cheater to "get over ".


Other breed registries will publicly print who has been caught cheating & the public does have a right to know as well as the owners of the horses sent to such trainers.We don't need drugs to win...not here at my farm where the horses are truly loved ,but I give second thoughts to racing at all when faced with an un-fair playing field. I think there are a lot of good people out there in racing, it is the bad-actors who must GO reflects upon ALL OF US.

17 May 2011 9:21 AM

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