Just Do It - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the July 14, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Before the end of 2012, Thoroughbred racing jurisdictions across the U.S. could dramatically change the regulatory landscape and send a strong message that medication abuse won’t be tolerated.

No venomous public hearings. No action stymied by widespread protests and threats. The change could be made even quicker than Thoroughbred racing’s ban of anabolic steroids, which took less than a year.

What is this magic elixir that could help restore integrity to the sport? It is The Jockey Club’s proposed “Reformed Racing Medication Rules.” These rules include a point system for penalty violations. Every violation includes a redistribution of purse money and a disqualification. Points accumulate as violations occur and trigger more severe penalties. Anyone who amasses 200 points in a three-year period is banned for a minimum of three years and, if aggravating circumstances exist, could be banned for life.

By consensus, a list of about 40 allowable therapeutic medications was cut to 26 and specific withdrawal times and testing thresholds identified for each.

And brace yourself: Practicing veterinarians, regulatory veterinarians, owners, and trainers’ representatives have all endorsed the thresholds and penalties.

So what’s holding up the adoption? Well, there is a fly in the elixir and its name is furosemide. The original draft of the medication rules recognized the anti-bleeding medication, also known as Salix or Lasix, as a permitted medication. This was how most people involved in drafting the proposed rules expected furosemide to be treated. In the final version released March 30, however, The Jockey Club included furosemide among the prohibited substances and encouraged the phaseout of its use on race day.

“While drafting the rules, we were having to make a lot of exceptions for furosemide, such as for total carbon dioxide levels and the presence of vets in a stall on race day,” said Matt Iuliano, executive vice president and executive director of The Jockey Club. “We took the road that has been consistent with the position of The Jockey Club, that all horses should be running free of medication on race day. We think eliminating Salix is best for the breed.”

We agree that racing’s future should be medication-free, for the success of the sport and health of the breed, but this single issue should not be allowed to derail what could otherwise be real progress toward stricter penalties and enforcement. Boards for both the Association of Racing Commissioners International and the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium will be reviewing and hopefully endorsing these rules within the next 30 days. Soon after, we hope every racing commission quickly begins its own adoption of a better, tougher penalty system of which 98% could be consistent across the U.S. It’s within our grasp to have what we all want—clear medication rules and thresholds, tougher penalties, and consistency coast-to-coast.

The New York Times Responds

The New York Times’ analysis of racing breakdowns and signs of injury that appeared in its March 25 edition search for categories within the data that included “broke down,” “vanned off,” and “lame.” The article did not identify all the search terms used but apparently the terms did not include any horses identified as “eased” or “walked off.” Joe Drape, one of the reporters on the story, did confirm the paper looked for terms indicating “signs of injury.” Now, a sign of injury should not be confused with critically injured.

“We never said critically injured,” said Drape in an e-mail. “If Eli Manning gets carted off in the first half, but returns in the second, he still showed signs of injury.”

One more point of clarification: The Quarter Horse statistics only made up a relatively small percentage of the injury statistics. And yet the article’s indictment of horse racing focused on unscrupulous Quarter Horse trainer Andres Gonzalez and his owner/cousin Ramon Gonzalez Jr., and then on seven critically injured jockeys, six of whom were injured in Quarter Horse races. 

11 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Old Old Cat

I am brand new to Thoroughbred racehorse breeding.  I have one broodmare and one yearling filly who I hope to race next year as a two year old.  She was a holy terror.  Not vicious, but so much into the flight/fight frenzy that she posed a risk to her handlers, even knocking down and hurting one of them.  We put her on a natural daily calm supplement and she went from Tony the tiger to Mary's little lamb.  When we race her are we going to be alble to give her supplements to allow her to saddle up quietly, behave in the post parade, and load easily in the starting gate, or are we going to have the opposite?  A dancing, prancing Big Brown using up all his energy leaving the paddock.  A horse refusing to load in a Breeders Cup Race?  Or a horse we have to scratch before we even get there.  My big complaint with the Jockey Club and the other decision makers who have embarked on this witch hunt is that they are lumping everything into "all drugs" whether they are beneficial for the health of horses or just plain cheating.

We need to know the ground rules if we are to play in the game.  Vague and shifting parameters are unfair.  Unfair to the betting public, the trainers, but most of all unfair to the breeders and owners.

10 Jul 2012 4:25 PM
hbc

I am sick and tired of hearing how joe drape is a friend and supporter of the horse industry. He willfully contributed to and supported that hatchet job of the new york times. Every track in the country should ban him from their property and he should receive no cooperation from the industry.

10 Jul 2012 5:38 PM
Needler in Virginia

Well said, but won't happen because of the furosemide issue. How long, OH!, how long will it take to JUST DO IT????

BLAH! No cheers today.

10 Jul 2012 10:20 PM
kincsem

Old Old Cat,

Sorry, but there IS another time-tested (yes, for 2400 years now) method for getting a horse saddled quietly in the paddock, and into the starting gate without incident and it does not involve doping the animal, or messing with their hormones...it's called training.

And if you take enough time, and have enough consistency and patience, as an old hand at this,who has worked with difficult horses, I can tell you it works.

;-)

11 Jul 2012 1:29 PM
big john t

As an owner I've always been against racing my horses on medications (except furosemide) and never let any of my horses run on anything except furosemide. If furosemide is banned the horse racing business is (for all practical purposes)  finished. We will (if we are lucky) have an average of 4 horse fields. I know owners, including myself, who didn't attend the Fasig Tipton sale because of this issue. We won't be buying or breeding until we know if Lasix will be permitted.

11 Jul 2012 4:57 PM
Sue MacGray

I agree with Mr. Mitchell. Nero is fiddling while Rome burns. If horse racing is ever to expand, there must be a set/strict policy and no more wrist-slapping for offenders. I also agree with Kincsem above. I don't believe that a horse should require "natural daily calm supplement" just to get them into the gate. I've worked with horses and ridden for years (not race horses though). I find it sad that so many people today are pro any kind of drug when horses were raced for years without them and horses overseas do not seem to require any (or as many). I realize there are many differences in training styles as well as in racing formats between 'them and us' but I can't think that's enough reason(ing). I just read all of the medications that IHA ran on (many that were preventative and all were legal/allowed) and I found THAT pretty surprising. It seems as though we've gotten to the bottom of what was once (merely) a slippery slope and many things are accepted that maybe should not be. I hope they can come quickly to a decision of some kind.

12 Jul 2012 12:12 PM
RacehorseExperiment

I agree that training is needed, not calming supplements.  Let's use old fashioned horsemanship, not go to the pharmacy every time we have an issue.

As for the NY Times. They are just doing what racing is doing.  While the racing industry tries to minimize the problem, the NY Times is merely taking the view that normal people take about it.

16 Jul 2012 11:53 AM
mets1962

There is no legitimate reason for any race day meds. NY raced for 100 + years without race day medication. Now after 16 years its indispensable. Get rid of all racing day medication. You allow one and they will find away to inject others that the labs can't trace.

16 Jul 2012 12:06 PM
Brigitte

Old Old Cat: Kincsem is right. I don't know why your filly is so fearful, but patience and training is the answer. The "natural daily calm supplement", whatever it is, acted as a strong tranquilizer and probably won't help her race well after she calmly allows herself to be saddled and put in the gate.

16 Jul 2012 2:56 PM
Brigitte

Medication reform and uniform rules would be very, very good for racing. The NY Times missed the boat on the real story: legal drugs are a bigger problem than illegal drugs because they are given automatically, supposedly to prevent problems. But Furosemide failed completely to deliver on the promise of horses that race more often (more on Furosemide below). Look at IHA's completely legal and normal vet record: needle, needle, needle, even for vitamins and electrolytes. Needle, needle, needle for preventative medicine. Was disease prevented? Who knows. Drugs have side effects, check out the effect of chronic clenbuterol use. Legal, preventative drugging is so common and so pervasive it's like a vet tax on racing. Where's the evidence it helps? We have permissive drugging and a parade of injuries - let's do something different.

At least get rid of race day medication. A reasonable Furosemide compromise is to phase it out starting with 2 year olds. Studies done in South Africa show it reduces (but does not prevent) bleeding by reducing blood pressure due to dehydration (minerals, including calcium, are also lost). Water loss: about 20 lbs. It masks the hereditary tendency to bleed heavily (heavy bleeding is rare) and this tendency seems to be spreading in South Africa. No studies of long term effects. (I'm a biologist who used genetics in my research so policies that encourage the spread of genetic defects aren't just a theoretical issue to me.)

Owners who won't participate unless they can use Furosemide to dehydrate their horses and leach minerals from their blood before racing them might not be a big loss if it stops the deterioration of the breed.

16 Jul 2012 3:53 PM
Dawn in MN

Old Old Cat, sorry about the comments others made.  Horse folks can be very know-it-all.  I don't question anything you are doing with your filly, she is your filly, do what you think best.  I read Bloodhorse, but I got to this article through a link from "Clean Horse Racing News."  They have a website at www.cleanhorseracing.org/Default.asp

Here's the deal, I don't claim to be an expert on the details.  I do know that I have spent less and less time following racing these days.  

Between the drugs, the slaughter issues, the breakdowns and the disappointments the sport just breaks my heart sometimes.  Certainly getting a uniform set of rules and standards would be a step forward.  It seems pretty simple to me.  Like the clean horse racing motto says, 'Let the horse, not the drugs, determine the outcome."

I love this sport because I love the horses.  I  hope Sen. Tom Udall's vision of a federal agency taking control away from state racing commissions and giving authority over the sport’s rules to a federal agency comes to fruition.  I am tired of the state commissions inconsistency and fluid ever-changing rules.  How does anyone in this business who races in multiple states make sense of the current mess?  It is ridiculous.

17 Jul 2012 7:25 PM

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