Customer Service - By Dan Liebman

(Originally published in the August 29, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

Though what he was speaking about had nothing to do with the sale of Thoroughbreds, listening to Daily Racing Form publisher Steve Crist Aug. 24 at The Jockey Club Round Table made me recall the 1983 Keeneland July yearling sale. The final price of the sale topper appeared as $200,000 because no one ever thought an eighth digit would be needed on the bid board. Actual hammer price: $10.2 million.

The blog software being used by Daily Racing Form on its Web site never experienced a problem with only allowing 100 comments on a post until Crist asked readers how they perceived medication issues in Thoroughbred racing. Because of that 100 comment limit, Crist had to re-post the blog entry six times. Final number of comments: 550.

Having been asked to speak at the Round Table about the perception of medication issues by racing fans, Crist decided to go directly to the source. He got an earful.
“The response was astounding: in its volume, in its tone, and in its content,” Crist told those in attendance.

And, as he pointed out, these comments were not “the complaints of horseplayers who had just lost a photo, but rather the “sentiments of some of your most loyal and most thoughtful customers.”

Crist read a sampling:
“Drugs in racing are out of control; the inmates are running the asylum.”

“There must be swifter, harsher justice, and more punitive penalties—zero tolerance, three strikes and you’re out of the game.”

“Punish the owners.”

As Crist said, these are “our fans’ perception of what racing needs to do about medication.”

But something interesting happened while Crist was receiving the comments. On July 16, Lone Star Park stewards, following guidelines established by the Texas Racing Commission, handed down a six-month suspension of leading trainer Steve Asmussen because a post-race urine test showed a metabolite of a local anesthetic in a maiden winner in 2008.

“I asked the respondents who had already posted comments, without agreeing or disagreeing with them, if what they really wanted was what they had been suggesting,” Crist said. “Assuming the suspension, which is under appeal, was sustained: Did they really want the trainer to be thrown out of the game? Did they really want all of his horses removed from their stalls and turned over to outside trainers rather than his assistants? Should all of the owners he trains for also be sanctioned? Should the hundreds of horses who have run under his name this year be barred from competition? Should Rachel Alexandra not be permitted to race again this year?”
Only a few, Crist said, even tried to answer.

What he took away from the exercise, Crist said, is that our fans are “completely confused” because “we make virtually no distinction between therapeutic medications that have a proper and even humane role in the treatment of these animals, and the abusive use of serious drugs. We make no distinction between marginal overages of medicine and the deliberate use of nefarious chemicals.”

In other words, the industry needs threshold levels, and the adoption of those levels by all 38 jurisdictions that regulate racing in North America. In addition, standardized testing methods for laboratories would ensure that uniformity not only exists regarding the level at which a drug would not be considered performance enhancing, but also the proper method for testing for such medications.

These ideas have been discussed for years, but Crist’s sampling shows many fans yearn for a day when they can be implemented.

Other sports, Crist said, such as baseball and cycling, are doing brisk business because, “After spending years in denial, officials of both of those sports eventually came clean and said something simple and straightforward that racing’s leaders need to say: We have a problem with medication, and we’re going to do something about it.”

Crist was asked to speak about perception, which he did. But that racing has a problem with medication is reality.

16 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Karen D

There is one big difference between horse racing and other sports: wagering.  The Daily Racing Form records Lasix use but that's it.  Until this mess is cleaned up (which will take forever unless there is a central authority) how about listing some of the other drugs, like the monthly "medicinal" doses of steriods? Full disclosure.

And yes, when standards are set and uniform testing is in place, repeat offenders should lose their training and veterinary licenses whether they are Steve Asmussen or not.  The people abusing the horses in their care and defrauding the public have no place in a sport that is serious about integrity.

25 Aug 2009 12:53 PM
noholme

The only way to provide uniformity, clarity and fairness is to ban all race-day medication, much as they do in every other major overseas racing jurisdiction. We have an existing foreign template to follow. Let's follow it and stop acting as if we have a better medication model.

Even the most commonly used drugs, should not, on humane grounds alone, be allowed in racing:

Lasix (furosemide) masks other drugs potentially harmful to the animal. In combination with cortocosteroids, as it is often used now, it can be positively dangerous.

Bute (phenylbutazone) can do terrible damage to the stomach etc. and masks potentially life-ending injuries, placing all starters and their riders in jeopardy.

We need to step back and think what is best for the animal and the industry. Perpetrating the perception of cheating and cruelty is foolhardy, to say the least.

Thank you Dan and Steve for shining light where it so badly needed if this industry (and I include breeding) is to survive.

26 Aug 2009 1:24 PM
zeno chedu

I have often heard trainers say that lasix does not enhance a horses' performance, why then, when European horses who race and win without medication, in England and France come to the US, they are given lasix? There has to be a total ban on drug use while horses are racing. It seems to me that the owners and trainers are reaping the benefits and the bettors are getting the shaft and the people who are supposed to be controlling the integrity of the sport are sitting on their asses and doing nothing.

26 Aug 2009 1:49 PM
Bob C

There has been a lot of talk recently about the end of the "iron horse". I think there is a definite correlation between the end of the "iron horse" and beginning of race-day medication. Also, the public perception of Thoroughbred racing has diminished considerably since race-day medication began. I believe in oats, hay and water and that's it.

26 Aug 2009 4:22 PM
horseman

Dan Metzger of TOBA stated a response recently that until "horsemen get on board, TOBA has no intention of disallowing Lasix use in graded stakes.

Let's face it, folks. If thats leadership, this industry doesn"t give a rat's behind about public perception of our industry thats going down the drain. Sadly, its not so much a lack of leadership, as a lack of insight.

26 Aug 2009 6:57 PM
Karen in Indiana

There has been much talk about the need to attract a wider fan base, especially younger fans. My son (age 22, target demographic) is a sports buff - he lives and breathes it. But when I talk to him about the horses, his comment is always that he isn't interested in it because of the drug usage, especially steroids. There's a wonderful video of Zenyatta with all of her pre-race strutting that I showed him and his response - 'She's on steroids'. So I showed him the videos of her with her owners, trainer and groom and told him about watching the groom talking to her and petting her and how she calms down and that horses on drugs wouldn't do that. But there is a conviction out there in the public that there is wide-spread drug use in the racing industry and until there is a nationally enforced and uniform policy that is easily understood, I don't see that perception changing.

26 Aug 2009 10:17 PM
Scott

Hay oats water, BS.  They did not test for anything way back when.  So to think the iron horse had nothing, is just absurd.  Way back when is when horse racing was the most crooked sport around.  The good old times, you must be wearing blinkers.  These are the good old times.  Enjoy the purses, great racing, great horses and great jockeys.  Rachel Alexander, would beat almost any horse racing today or yesterday.  Enjoy the magnificent athelete

26 Aug 2009 11:45 PM
RunFillyRun

Throw the trainer out. Ban his horses. Empty his stalls. It's harsh, but maybe if a state/racetrack/racing commission/whoever decides they want to bone up and enforce the rules comes down swfitly and applies the law to a couple of big names, trainers will think twice about running a horse with something illegal in their system. Forget whining about how some drugs should be banned and others shouldn't--what continues to amaze me in this saga is that nobody is willing to communicate with each other about what the current rules are at each track. I understand there's discrepency and it's confusing, shipping a horse across state lines and not knowing how the rules have changed but that's why racetracks have people answering the phones in the racing office. Check on the rules before you run a horse, check with your vet about withdrawal times for all the therapuetic drugs you've administered, and you're way less likely to have problems. You can't beg off a speeding ticket just because you didn't notice the speed limit (or at least, you're not supposed to). Ignorance and laziness shouldn't be considered valid excuses.

Also Scott, her name is Rachel AlexandRA not AlexandER. Might wanna get that cleared up before she retires.

27 Aug 2009 11:11 AM
fjackie

find out what they do in Japan

they get a lot of peaple interested in horse racing

27 Aug 2009 7:32 PM
Jane

I follow this "sport" for the love of the animals, period.  How better to showcase the horse for the marvel of nature and history that it is?  If you want racing to appeal to the public imagination, maybe you don't need to jazz up the horses or the competitions with steroids and the like.  Take care of the animals and let the rest take care of itself.

28 Aug 2009 6:30 AM
FourCats

I'm really tired of the way this topic is portrayed in the press.  Why?  I am a horse owner (2 horses).  I've never given either of my horses illegal drugs.  My horses have gotten medication but only for their health and never to try to get a performance edge.  In fact, both of my horses are just back from a year layoff that they needed because of slight injuries.  I also never bet on any race in which my horses run.  And I've never cheated at anything in my life.  Can I speak for other owners in the industry?  No, but I've not seen any evidence from my view as a relative insider of any widespread attempt to cheat or deceive the public.  I have seen owners who love their horses and trainers who work long hours and take incredible care of the horses in their care.  Of course there are going to be some who cheat but that's true in every endeavor in life that you can come up with.  Frankly, I'd hold the press in a lot better esteem if, instead of harping on the "perception" of medication in racing, they did a little investigative reporting and reported the facts.  Like, interview a few thousand owners, trainers, vets, stewards.  Here's a thought.  Why doesn't the Blood-Horse buy an inexpensive racehorse and report on all of the medications that they need to give that horse?  Report on their interaction with the racing industry as an owner.  Such a project might even be popular with their readers.

28 Aug 2009 1:53 PM
Johnny

We consider ourselves the most advanced country in the world, and obviously in many respects we are; but when it comes to the greatest sport in the world, Thoroughbred racing, we are behind, in my opinion because we have to depend on chemicals, whether it's a legal drug like Lasix or by cheating with something else. I suppose this issue is an extension of problems within our culture, because many people also rely on drugs. I'm not referring to people who need the chemicals for genuine medical reasons.

Whenever I turn on the evening national news, most of the commercials are from drug companies. Our country, to a certain extent, seems to live on chemicals, whether legitimately or not, so perhaps we're simply passing our habits to our horses, and assume they need the drugs to, and how unfortunate to be using these innocent creatures to gain a competitive advantage. Sometimes when I hear about a horse receiving Lasix for the first time, I wonder why? Did he bleed, and if he did, should he even be competing in the first place? What happens to a European horse who bleeds? He isn't given Lasix, is he? Is he simply turned out or retired? Or do European horses bleed less due to different and better conditions? And could the ongoing use of Lasix actually encourage more bleeding? I don't know, and that's why I'm asking. It's discouraging to look at all the entries on a card and see the majority of runners with "FTL" or "L" next to their names.

Why do our horses have to depend on drugs, particularly Lasix, to compete, when these chemicals are banned from many other countries?

What's even more frustrating is when I hear about a horse from another nation coming over here and is administered Lasix. I am confused why suddenly the animal needs to have it. Someone told me it's to perhaps level the playing field. Level the playing field? With a drug? How terribly sad and unfortunate. Wouldn't the playing field be leveled if nobody was on it?

I also wonder how long term use of Lasix or some of the other chemicals, affects the horse's health, soundness, and if the weakening of tissues or bone can more easily make a horse prone to injury or worse; or if the effects of drugs use can be passed down to offspring. Thus unsoundness, which can be from natural causes as well, is perpetuated, to some degree, by a chemical.

29 Aug 2009 1:46 PM
JOE D

WHY DO YOU THINK THEY WONT TAKE LASIX AWAY IN NORTHERN AMERICA,ONLY IN THE US EVERY HORSE BLEEDS, BS. BUT WHY DOES EVERYONE PAY TOP DOLLAR FOR A YEARLING & TWO YEAR OLD IN THE US? WHY NOT OVERSEAS WHERE THEY ARE HEALTHIER, WOULD'NT YOU WANT TO SPEND A MILLION DOLLARS ON A HEALTHY NON BLEEDER? THE OWNERS & TRAINERS KNOW THEY WILL GET THEIR TURN TO WIN WHEN THE VET SAYS,THIS SPORT WENT TO THE GARBAGE CAN, ITS SO CORRUPT THEY CANT FIX IT TOO MANY HANDS IN THE BREW.LASIX NEEDS TO GO AND THEY KNOW IT BUT IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN THAT WHERE IT ALL TAKES PLACE GOOD LUCK OWNERS AND GAMBLERS YOU NEED IT.

30 Aug 2009 8:47 AM
wista

FOUR CATS: Oh please. This sport has lost so many good,honest,hard-working people because of the cheats-period!!!!!!!! Why have we lost so many"first families" of this sport? Because of drugs and crooks!

Dutrow and Asmussen have more positives than I can remember . . . and yet they are the real face of the sport right now.They have the top three year olds and they are constantly on the television screen.

How about this: your friendly financial advisor has been fined repeatedly for cheating over a span of ten years . . . should he be allowed to continue? Or  . . . let's give Bernie Madoff another chance! or two or three

Here's a question: What percentage of horses don't race with the aid of Lasix or"Bute"?

If the current situation continues, this sport will die.

Another good question for discussion: what will be the state of racing 25 years from now? 50 years from now?

30 Aug 2009 11:19 AM
goodwin

fjackie,

In Japan, they also EAT horses. Perhaps it is more popular there because they only see the animal as a commodity, and we Americans have a different relationship with our horses due to their part in our westward migration.

31 Aug 2009 11:05 AM
Greg R.

It's not the one or two time offenders, it's the 20 times plus offenders, who get eclipse awards for their crimes! ban them and their owners for life.

01 Sep 2009 12:20 AM

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