What Ails Us

(By Avalyn Hunter)

I was talking last week to a new coworker, a nurse practitioner who was once a groom in Kentucky. She loved Thoroughbreds then and still does. But she wants nothing to do with American racing. "A lot of it's the drugs," she said. "They give the stuff to all of them and they don't care whether the horse really needs it or what else might be the problem. Just give them a shot and run them until they drop."

Of course, this is only one person's perception. But when you talk to people outside racing circles, you find out pretty fast that she isn't the only one holding such opinions. In fact, most of the people I work with--primarily well-educated professionals--look askance at horse racing. Sure, the Kentucky Derby's exciting, but ask them to state three things they know about racing, and drugs and breakdowns will usually be two of the three. They can't name the last Derby winner, but they sure can remember Barbaro and "that filly who broke down in the Derby."

It is a cruel irony that Barbaro and Eight Belles suffered their life-ending breakdowns while in the care of Michael Matz and Larry Jones, respectively, two of the best-respected and most genuine horsemen in the game. The problem is that the average person can't tell a Matz or a Jones from those trainers whose names keep coming up in the news in connection with drug positives or other rules violations. What they see is the animal with its broken leg; they hear the outcries about the "abuse" entailed in racing, including the use of drugs; and they make what seems to them to be a logical connection. Is it any wonder that racing finds its fan base slipping away?

That might not matter if fans had no influence on the game, but the fact is that even casual fans are significant. New owners and breeders do not magically sprout up from cabbage patches; unless they belong to families that have been associated with racing for generations, they are people who fell in love with the sport somewhere along the way and started to want more than casual involvement. Fans wager. Fans pay admissions and buy food and drink and souvenirs at the track. Fans who have had positive experiences attract other fans by word of mouth. And fans draw media coverage and the associated advertising, a potential source of revenue which should not be ignored.

Eleven months ago, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA, the parent company of The Blood-Horse) went on record as supporting the movement to ban race-day medication, going so far as to state that their American Graded Stakes Committee would ban the use of race-day medication in all graded stakes for juveniles in 2012. This was a step in the right direction, not just for reversing the public perception that horse racing is inherently abusive but for strengthening the position of American Thoroughbreds in the international market. Now TOBA has backtracked, citing the lack of concerted action by the various entities governing racing, even though those entities do not control the AGSC.

In response, George Strawbridge and Charlotte Weber, two owners both known for their deep love of their horses as well as their long-term commitment to the sport, have withdrawn from membership in protest; another of the same breed, Arthur Hancock, has publicly criticized TOBA's action as catering to the interests of service providers rather than those of owners. Their voices, and those of others like them, cannot be ignored; they are pointing to an increasing rift between those who place the interests of the horses and the sport on at least an equal basis with their own business interests and those whose interests lie in maintaining the status quo.

In his famous "A House Divided" speech, Abraham Lincoln said in regards to slavery that this nation could not stand, half slave and half free. The American Thoroughbred industry appears to have come to a similar crossroads. Medication is by no means the only problem facing horse racing, but because of its position in the public eye, it must be dealt with. The industry has a choice: it can reshape the public's perceptions by taking actions that speak of integrity, or it can continue a piecemeal approach that speaks primarily of self-interest.


Leave a Comment:


Should one bow to the beliefs of the uninformed public or instead attempt to educate them? Problem is, many if not most of the supposed potential educators-those actively involved in the sport-are also uninformed. Breakdowns, and those drugs employed to mask unsoundness, etc. are issues quite separate from whether or not race-day Salix should be permitted. It's easy for some to lump all this together, but to do so is unscientific, illogical or disingenuous. If horse welfare is the motivating objective (which it is for me) then the race-day administration of salix should be applauded, since one must reach this conclusion after studying the scientific literature to date. What is often lost in these discussions is the undeniable truth that racing speeds and the levels of fittnes required are unnatural conditions for the horse, including the thoroughbred racehorse. We are placing them in harm's way, and due to this unfortunate (selfish?) circumstance we are morally required to at least minimize this harm. Salix is one such agent which has been proven to reduce EIPH. EIPH is harmful to the horse, and there's no getting around this. Some will posit that Salix has deliterious side effects for the horse. Show me your scientific evidence, not mere conjecture. Should you find any, please then weigh it against the harmful effects of EIPH. The fact that the majority of foreign juridictions outlaw race-day Salix is as nonpersuasive as the beliefs of the uninformed public. Their bans were instituted well before the studies demonstrating the efficacy of furosemide (Lasix, Salix) were brought to light. It's my understanding that rather than reopening/revisiting this issue they chose instead to stubbornly ignore the scientific data. Why then should we mimic their doctrine?.. The fact that certain longstanding, wealthy thoroughbred owners support the ban of race-day Salix should, in itself, have no bearing on this issue. They are only what they are, and neither scientists, nor experts in this particular area. Please educate yourselves before you play the horse welfare card.                

21 Mar 2012 8:07 PM

I prefer to put the case in terms of Short-term vs Long-term thinking. It's takes into account the natural desire to help horses here and now that is used to promote the use of drugs as "therapy". As a biologist the "therapeutic" use of Lasix is Short-term thinking. Bleeding has a strong hereditary component, so therapeutic Lasix/Salix just helps bleeders race well enough to spread the tendency to bleed and weaken the breed. "Kindness" to one horse here and now is cruel to the breed. The owner and trainer are happy today that their bleeder won. But the same two would be even happier if they didn't have Chemical Horses who are raced and breezed after being dehydrated by Lasix then injected with minerals to make up for it, not to mention other meds. The Iron Horse wasn't a Chemical Horse.

Stop killing the goose that lays golden eggs, stop over medicating the horses that make racing the Sport of Kings.

21 Mar 2012 9:10 PM
Terry M.

Great article.

22 Mar 2012 12:59 AM
Barry Irwin

Very well done.

22 Mar 2012 8:09 AM
Mark Antonini

Excellent article Avalyn. I am a new small-time owner to the game, and intend to breed my own stock. Being a smaller owner/breeder, I will likely not be in a position to completely decide on the care of my horses during training.  That said, I have a bit of a different take on the drug use in the sport.

My family is changing the way we eat and view traditional medicine for ourselves.  As such, we are doing the same for our animals (dogs, horses). Trending more toward whole foods and away from the chemicals we have introduced into our systems primarily for convenience sake.  What that would likely mean for my racing stable is that some of my runners may require more time off if they are sore after a work or race. I will budget accordingly for that.

The argument that the horses require bleeder medication to race, and therefore it's cruel not to use it, is short-sighted in my opinion. Maybe the ones that really require it shouldn't be racing in the first place.  Same for NSAIDS like Bute, although I view this more as selfish.  

We treat symptoms in our country, not problems.  This is an example of that.  If we can't afford to give our horses time off when they are sore, then we probably can't afford to be an owner, in my opinion.

I will breed my own because it will be difficult for me to trust what I see at auction.  Was the horse bred that way, or was it altered or jacked up on chemicals to look that way?  I won't have any way of knowing, and so, I will create my own.

22 Mar 2012 12:25 PM

I'm rather certain that I'll win no converts here, but allow me to address Brigitte's (and perhaps others') genetics issue.- The research I've read suggests that essentially all racing horses bleed-yes, some to greater degrees than others, but nearly if not all experience EIPH. Recent research also points out that degree of EIPH is surface related (that degree of impact can exacerbate EIPH-i.e. a giving turf course causes less lobular concussion). Science (at least for now) seems to conclude that propensity for EIPH in the racehorse cannot be selectively bred out. Yes, it may be possible to identify some of the most extreme candidates-and then remove them from the breeding population- but it is very doubtful that we can ever eliminate EIPH susceptibility from the breed (as long as we continue to race them) and, more importantly, its deliterious consequence to the animal. Even if we could, it would take countless generations for this to occur, all the while causing great harm to those racing (assuming that Salix would be withheld in our futile attempt to eradicate EIPH through identification of the most obvious "bleeders".).    

22 Mar 2012 5:55 PM

let's see--a horse person has a conversation with a non-horse person nurse practitioner who is under the delusion that everybody in racing cheats and uses illegal drugs.

Instead of correcting that "non-horse person" and explaining things are really quite different than ur erroneous perception, we get instead of post on the Blood Horse on this "horse person", I hesitate because it's fairly obvious she's never trained a horse, uses her own prejudices to then say the sport should cow tow to the "perception" of people that are without a clue as to what they're talking about.

My opinion is that a few people in the horse business need to grow a pair and when the general public has misperception, correct them.

23 Mar 2012 1:42 PM

Ms. Hunter,

Unlike some BloodHorse blog authors, you have the decency and integrity to post comments/opinions that may differ from your own. I ask, therefore, for you to extend this courtesy one step further, and respond (here) to the following:

It appears the stimulus for your piece is the recent TOBA "backtracking" on race-day medication. You appear to be on the side of those who oppose this "backtracking". Your article, and many other pundits IMPLY that there are a host of medications presently permissible to be administered on race-day. Please then enlighten us on the names (classes) of these medications. I'd suggest that Salix (and its various forms) is the only race-day permitted therapeutic for the majority of racing jurisdictions. Please correct me if I'm mistaken, citing specifics. The facts should be clear before positions taken...And lastly, it would be refreshing if just once a blog author, after gaining more enlightenment, would reverse their position.

  • Scot's reply: Sceptre introduces several points for discussion and debate. Race-day medication is a hot issue in Thoroughbred racing and deserves ongoing dialog--including an ongoing examination of facts and a review of cultural acceptance. I would like to correct one point, however: moderation of all content on the MarketWatch Blog is a responsibility of the MarketWatch editors--guest authors do not accept or repress comments from readers.
24 Mar 2012 12:17 PM

The facts are that 12 yrs ago 7 of the top 15 sires in world(by progeny ratings) were US based...today it is 2/15.

Lasix is a masking drug because it is a diuretic. The rest of the world overtook us because of their zero tolerance to raceday medication. Lasix masked what the top US horses were getting,and the Europeans got stung buying those 'top horses' progeny... They don't come in anything like the same nos. as 12 yrs ago, because they're missing nothing.

When we switched to synthetic because of the breakdowns(see latest 3yr statistics), the Euros came 12000 miles and won everything...Remember BC '08?and not forgetting  Gitano Hernando's Goodwood.So instead of realising our problems...we took our toys home and switched back to dirt.

it doesn't matter what industry insiders think.Racing is all about perception..which currently means Barbaro,3 Belles and Big Brown.

The Elephant in the room is that dirt racing cannot survive without raceday lasix and bute.

What will save the sport is banning raceday medication and switching to synthetics.

And before you all start shouting about soft tissue injuries on synthetic... 1) In Hong Kong,Chantilly,Newmarket,the Curragh,Lambourn,Middleham and dozens of private operations they train exclusively on synthetic...have done for years.

and 2)I'd rather have a horse short term lame than dead.

24 Mar 2012 3:14 PM

I wish there were others like fb0252 to carry the ball here. Apparently not, but this topic is of sufficient importance and, perhaps, read by enough numbers to force me to offer a bit more-

Rory's thoughts may be held by many, and his comments are indicative of the pervasive lack of knowledge surrounding these issues...Lasix (Salix) in the dosages permitted has been shown not to be a "masking agent"-for openers, take a look at the testimony offered during the June '11 race-day medication summit. There may be, worldwide, a host of illegal drugs administered to racehorses-who knows, perhaps more in the US- but our inability to detect them is not due to Salix administration-read what the testing labs have to say on the subject...The issue of synthetic vs dirt is unrelated to the Salix debate. For now, I tend to be pro synthetic, because the stats suggest it is safer. No, I wouldn't train exclusively on it, and am certain Rory is incorrect in his assertions. As to his remarks about Eight Belles, Barbaro, Big Brown-again, this has nothing to do with Salix. Those who truly care about the racehorse would do better to focus upon our inadequate means to monitor their well-being. Yes, we must endeavor to rid them of all non-therapeutic illegal substances, but as, if not more importantly, take greater effort to better monitor/oversee their various musculo-skeletal issues and the like. This overfocus on drugs-even those that are truly harmful-is somewhat a convenient diversion from the perpetuated greater wrong, that being our lack of resolve in adequately (it can never be adequate) protecting these animals. This protest of race-day Salix administration is a red herring; many of those who support its ban are really about protecting the sport and not the horse...And lastly, Mr. Barry Irwin-I noticed that you congratulated Ms. Hunter on her piece. I take it you support a race-day ban on Salix. You were a journalist by trade, and are known to be rather outspoken. Funny, I can't recall hearing/reading much from you on the Salix subject. As said, you're the skilled writer, I'm but a physician, but since you're so opinionated I'd welcome your debating this with me. My guess is that you're another who places the sport before the horse.          

25 Mar 2012 12:38 AM

I cannot believe some of the comments on this blog defending Lasix. If other countries can run their horses without Lasix then how come we cannot?

Irregardless of what you believe, the public perception of this sport is negative. We have been closing racetracks all over the country. The fan base is consistently eroding every year.

It is the only industry I can think of where it is subsidized by one of it's major competitor.

That negative perception WILL lead to regulation in the state and federal level and nobody wants that.

No amount of education is going to change the general public perception because the industy failed to weed out the bad apples.

Again I ask who are defending Lasix. Why do we use it but other countries don't? I sure like to hear the reason(s)

25 Mar 2012 8:21 PM

Still no response?...let me ask again

- Why do we use lasix while other countries don't..

here's another one I cannot get an answer

- Why have been shortening the great fall eastern races? The Personal Ensign is now 9 furlongs? WHY?

I know the answers but I like to see the so called "experts" straighten me out.

26 Mar 2012 4:15 PM

Recent Posts

More Blogs