Protecting the Brand - by Eric Mitchell

Perception is reality. Over and over we hear this phrase as it relates to politics, business, and even Thoroughbred racing. These three words are used so often because the concept is real and powerful.

Unfortunately, racing is dealing with its own shady perceptions. At the forefront is a belief that North American horses need race-day medication to compete. Race-day medication means allowing a horse to run on the anti-bleeding drug Salix.

Having horses running on drugs is not sitting well with people in this country; heck, it’s not even sitting well with our fans.

The “Driving sustainable growth for Thoroughbred racing and breeding” study done this year by the international management and consulting firm McKinsey & Co. indicated only 46% of racing fans would recommend horse racing to other people. By comparison, 82% of baseball fans, 81% of football fans, and 55% of poker players are evangelists for their sport of choice. Then when McKinsey asked how many racing fans considered themselves “proud to be a fan,” only 35% said yes compared with 66% for other sports.

Can we blame Salix for the bad perception? We can blame a big part of it. In the same study 78% of horse racing fans said medication was an issue negatively affecting the sport, and 36% said it was among the top-three issues facing the industry.

Part of the perception problem is the general public does not distinguish among Salix or cocaine or anabolic steroids. Drugs are drugs.

Salix does help horses with exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging, known more commonly as bleeding or the rupture of capillaries in the lungs due to the tremendously high level of air pressure while horses race. But not every horse is a bleeder, and not every horse requires Salix on race day. We know this because horses are running without it on race days in every other racing jurisdiction in the world.  

So now we are caught in a war of rhetoric. The pro-Salix camp says the North American racing industry will collapse if we don’t keep race-day Salix use—field size will diminish, and owners will abandon the sport. The anti-Salix camp says the breed will weaken and the sport wither because fans old and new will not support horse racing if racing on medication persists.

Fans are racing’s customers. Fans also become bettors and owners. If we don’t deal aggressively with the perception that horses must race on medication, then the reality is we’ll have fewer owners, bettors, and fans.

Dealing in Facts

One of the biggest challenges in the debate on medication use has been squaring comments with facts. We had a question raised about a statement made by trainer Rick Hiles, a member of the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council, during a KEDRC meeting in May. Hiles relayed a story from an unnamed individual who wanted to know why an unnamed European country had reported no positive test results for phenylbutazone, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug called Bute. The reason, the individual told Hiles, was that the country doesn’t test for Bute, and we repeated Hiles’ story in this column (The Blood-Horse of June 4, page 1515). We followed up with Dominique de Wenden, secretary general of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities. He said by e-mail: “We are not aware of any Western European country not testing for Bute.”  When Hiles was contacted and asked about De Wenden’s comment, Hiles said his source was referring to England and that the source had actually talked with someone in a lab overseas. The reason for no positives, Hiles said, might be because the threshold is high enough that no one crosses it.

The bottom line of this tale is that all Western European countries do test for Bute and the level is far lower than the 2 micrograms/ml allowed in the United States. Dr. Rick Sams, director of the HFL Sports Science testing lab in Lexington, said the level of detection in Europe corresponds to the same level at which Bute can no longer be detected in urine, so any amount detected is considered a positive. We couldn’t find an exact threshold for Bute, but Sams said it is in nanograms/ml. A nanogram is 1/1,000th of a microgram. One reason England does not have any positives is the recommended withdrawal time for oral and intravenous Bute is seven days, according to the European Horserace Scientific Liaison Committee. To be below the 2 microgram/ml threshold in this country, horsemen cannot give 2 grams of Bute within 36 hours of a race.

Navigating the complex world of medication use in racehorses is tricky enough even when all the facts are known. Let’s hope everyone serving on an industry board, council, or committee dealing with medication has a renewed commitment to shining light on the truth rather than clouding the issues with hearsay. 

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