Drugs, Conditioning, and the American Racehorse

By Earl Ola

Allen Jerkens pointed to a fitter, sturdier animal as another reason why bleeding was considered atypical in the 1950s and 1960s. He said none of his good horses were bleeders.

"Horses worked a lot harder in those days,” Jerkins said. “The strain on them in the race wasn’t as much as the strain is on them now. They trained almost as hard in the morning as they did when they ran.”

The best horses would often work the full distance of an upcoming race five or six days before, breeze a half-mile two days out, and maybe even an eighth of a mile the morning of the race. As but one example, three days before Assault finished off the Triple Crown, Max Hirsch sent the colt out for a 12-furlong breeze in 2:32 at Belmont Park. Allen Jerkins opined, ”If you're not breezing, you're bleeding."

The typical modern drugged, bleeding American Thoroughbred training regime is one breeze at one quarter to one half their race distance every seven days followed by one day of hand-walking followed by five days of slow galloping 1 1/4  to 1 1/2 miles. Contrast this to the average non-bleeding, drug-free foreign racehorse who is breezed two to three times per week. Some foreign trainers employ back-to-back breezes, which means a horse will have four breezes in one week. Their slow work is often open gallops or two-minute lick works. Most drug-free, seldom bleeding foreign racehorses do more race-specific appropriate conditioning in one week than our drugged, bleeding American racehorses do in one month.

In a recent Blood-Horse article Jerkins asked: “How come they (modern American Thoroughbreds) work five furlongs for a five furlong race, five furlongs for a 1 1/8-mile race and 5 furlongs for a 1 1/2-mile race? I don’t understand it.
That’s why a lot of horses don’t finish in their races. The times aren’t any faster than they used to be 30 or 40 years ago. Trotters have gotten way faster over the years while Thoroughbreds haven’t. Kelly Kip ran three quarters in 1:07 and change a couple of times and that was 15 years ago.”

Tom Ivers (author of "The Fit Racehorse") and I pioneered equine exercise performance science. We had 40 donated written-off racehorses to do extensive research on. We were then and may still be the only people doing race-specific scientific conditioning research on real racehorses. We pioneered the use of heart rate meter monitoring in racehorses, set the parameters for their use, pioneered lactic acid analysis, etc. We found that only unfit racehorses bleed and that unfit racehorses breakdown far sooner and in far greater numbers than truly race-fit horses because they do not have the benefit of enough race-specific conditioning that remodels their bodies—developing the necessary bone, tendon, ligament, heart and lung densities or a whole body physical strength to withstand racing pressures.
Studies by Olympic research staff have found the only way to prevent physical problems in human athletes is to provide them with the right training facilities (another area that needs huge improvement in our American Thoroughbred training environment), and they need to be trained in such a way that they are physically able to withstand racing's pressures.

Bone density development and legal drug use in racehorses are areas that need scrutiny through honest, provable scientific research, not the bogus science being used by pro-drug advocates. Oats Hay and Water alliance member and owner of Two Bucks Farm Jim Squires says, “If you examine the science on the side effects of Lasix on human bones, you will see that over a period of time it weakens them considerably by repeatedly interrupting the bone maturation process. This causes a horse to leech replacement calcium out of its bones. With every dose, calcium falls beneath the needed balance with phosphorus and potassium. Vets often attempt to offset this with calcium shots and electrolytes post race. But that is useless. By then the balance has been restored and the horse rids himself of the excess in his urine."

By beginning this harmful process in 18-month-old horses, the bones never get a chance to build density, which I believe to be the main reason they cannot work and race like they once did. If you look at the downward spiral in starts, endurance and breakdowns, you will see it coincides with the introduction and spread of Lasix as a regular element of racing.

Unbiased scientific Lasix research on racehorses done by foreign racing bodies, like those in Australia and Japan whose governments fund research that is not influenced by drug company money, provides the exact same results as those studies done on humans. They have found that Lasix prevents bone density development, and they have scientific proof that Lasix causes internal organs to malfunction over time in racehorses, just as human studies has shown.

Before the legal use of Lasix, American Standardbreds averaged over 100 race starts. Since the Standardbred racing industry has allowed the legal use of Lasix that number has dropped to 67 lifetime race starts. What has prevented average lifetime starts from dropping even further is that the America’s Standardbred training industry has a far more race-specific training system than America’s Thoroughbred training industry, which is why Standardbreds race far longer than Thoroughbred racehorses, and their race times keep getting faster.
Before the legal use of Lasix, American Thoroughbreds raced an average 54.9 times, while today they average less than 17 lifetime starts and that number keeps declining. Most of this decline in lifetime starts is due to the legal use of Lasix, clenbuterol, Bute, etc, and it can be attributed to an inappropriate modern training system—both reasons that Thoroughbred race times have remained stagnant for many years.

For all the time wasted and money spent on the Lasix debate, the truth is our American racehorses keep bleeding far more on Lasix than more appropriately trained drug-free foreign racehorses. Our half-empty racetrack grandstands are living proof that our modern human animal-loving American public is never going to become involved in an animal-based sport were the animals are drugged and whipped.

Every time our animal-loving American public witnesses a half-fit racehorse breakdown on the racetrack, or they read that most of our 3-year-old classic contenders have broken down, it drives more and more people away from our sport. It is a readily observable fact that drug and whip use are keeping our American racetrack stands half empty, while we desperately need to increase our horse racing fan base because gaming revenue will one day evaporate just as it has done in Canada.

Earl Ola is an equine performance and training consultant who also owns a farm near Morriston, Fla.

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