Federal Oversight Threatens Thoroughbred Racing Self-Governance

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(By Avalyn Hunter)

On July 19, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA, the parent company of Blood-Horse Publications) announced that 40 owners had pledged not to race any of their juveniles on Salix or other anti-bleeding medications in 2012. Among them were many of the most respected and recognizable names in the business: Ogden Mills Phipps, William S. Farish, George Strawbridge Jr., Adele Dilschneider, Arthur Hancock III, Barry Irwin, and Gretchen and Roy Jackson, to name just some. These are not ignorant people with no regard for the health and well-being of their horses; on the contrary, most have been in the Thoroughbred industry for decades and are deeply concerned about both their animals and the sport they love.

Their action is a step in the right direction. Lax medication rules and the widespread perception that cheating is taken lightly have created a public relations nightmare for Thoroughbred racing. While recent New York Times articles on injury rates and medication use have been rightly criticized for failure to separate Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse statistics and questionable methodology, the fact remains that they are only a very visible indicator of more widespread questions among those even casually acquainted with racing--the very people that racing must attract as new fans if the sport is to remain viable.

Racing must overcome not only the negative publicity it has generated for itself but its addiction to quick fixes and the belief that more is better when it comes to equine medicine. This is not to denigrate the work of equine veterinarians, who are a vital part of the industry and instrumental in treating the illnesses and injuries of equine athletes. But over the past several years, a slow tide of change has been sweeping through human medicine, as reviews of available evidence reveal time and again that many supposedly "preventive" health measures do more harm than good by having healthy people undergo extra tests and procedures for conditions that would probably never have caused them significant harm in the first place--or would have been better handled through lifestyle change. The question must be asked as to whether we are giving our horses the same over-treatment we give ourselves, along with medication as a quick fix for lack of basic fitness, chronic exposure to respiratory iirritants, nagging aches and pains, and other long-term issues that require time and patience (and sometimes some sleuth work) to correct.

Unfortunately, the racing community may be awakening to its danger too late for the best good of the industry, as the threat of federal oversight looms ever closer. While American racing has long needed a centralized authority to oversee racing rules, medication, and discipline of chronic violators, the sport would have been far better served by agreeing to develop such an authority in-house. There is little reason to doubt that Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Representative Ed Whitfield (R-Kentucky) have the welfare of horses and racing in mind in proposing legislation providing for federal oversight of medication rules, but it should not have come to the point where politicians rather than horsemen are making those decisions. For politicians serve more than one master, and the master that usually matters most is their perception of public opinion, particularly when election time rolls around. And once horse racing falls under the federal government's controlling hand, it will not easily get free again of what may be an increasingly meddlesome uncle.

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