A July 2 panel discussion on racetrack medication and the "reality of perception" led to allegations of medication abuse, racing surfaces that damage horses, and a regulatory system that hinders progress.
Numerous subjects came up during the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Manager's Club in meeting in Lexington. Just about all of them dealt with the racetrack; during the two-hour session, there was only one comment--from a man in the audience of mostly breeders or their representatives--about the alleged over-medication of horses at auction.
The latest alleged abuse is use of shock-wave therapy, according to panelists. Gary Bizsantz, chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and Alice Chandler, a breeder and member of the Kentucky Racing Commission, both indicated one of the reasons jockey Chris McCarron recently retired is that horses are racing on numbed limbs.
When properly used, shock-wave therapy can help fractures heal during a process that includes turnout in a pasture. Biszantz said he has heard the machines are being used improperly on backstretches. Horses are put on the machines a few days before they run for the "anesthetic" benefits, he said.
Biszantz lobbied to have the machines made a "prohibited practice" under Association of Racing Commissioners International guidelines now in place for erythropoietin, or EPO, and the practice known as blood-doping.
Dr. Darrell Easley, a racetrack veterinarian and panelist, said he is aware of shock-wave therapy but not its non-conventional uses. Dr. Larry Bramlage, who was in the audience, said research into the therapy has been ongoing for more than a year in an effort to be ahead of the curve before shock-wave therapy made its way to the racetrack.
No one offered specific barns or racetracks where shock-wave therapy is being abused.
Other topics were broached at the meeting, including:
- Racetrack surfaces. Trainer John Ward said one reason horses are injured is that surfaces are too hard.
"Why do racetrack managers want to do this?" Ward asked. "Racetracks are not finely tuned. They're just hard and dangerous."
Bramlage said that, statistically, there has not been an increase in breakdowns on the racetrack.
- Regulators. Ward said the only way to bring about reform and uniformity in medication, drug testing, and other areas is for racing commissions to get on the same page and implement changes.
"It's a good old boy network," Ward said of racing regulators. "Peer pressure has to take over."
Said Chandler, who has attempted to bring about changes through her work with the Kentucky Equine Drug Council, to applause from the audience: "Johnny Ward just described the racing commission in Kentucky."
Chandler also said she is concerned about Kentucky and "the fact it is so radical and open" when it comes to medication. "We are allowed to use 16 medications on race day, and that cannot be good for a horse," she said.
- Uniformity and its obstacles. Dr. Scot Waterman, executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Racing Integrity and Drug Testing Task Force, provided an overview and then specifically touched on regulatory limits proposed by an organization he did not name. He noted that because of differences in testing by jurisdiction, a mepivicaine positive in one jurisdiction wouldn't be a positive in another jurisdiction.
The National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association based its medication proposal released last fall on regulatory limits, or threshold levels.
- The German model. Published reports have detailed how Germany's breeders association does not pay stallion awards to stallions that raced on drugs. Chandler said "if the world were perfect," she'd like to see that mindset come to the United States. Others disagreed.
"How do you find out if a horse was medicated or not," Ward said. "It's just ludicrous to me. In about 200 years, you'll have a good breed of horse (in Germany)."
- The structure of U.S. racing. Ward said demands on trainers have led to harder racing for horses. For instance, he said the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships "has consumed trainers' lives" and led to "tremendously hard prep races."
Ward also said the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile used to be a one-mile event, then was extended to 1 1/16 miles, and this year, because of the track configuration at Arlington Park, will be 1 1/8 miles. He questioned that move given the option was there to hold the race at one mile around one turn.
"Those horses won't see that distance again until the Florida Derby (the following March)," Ward said. "We've got to use a little more judgment to preserve our young horses."
- Use of steroids. Easley said corticosteroids can aid horses' joints when used judiciously. He said widespread use of anabolic steroids can have "deleterious" effects on horses.
- Use of therapeutic medications. There was some debate over furosemide, or Salix, and Bute, which are commonly used in racehorses. Bramlage, a racetrack vet, indicated a declining number of starts for racehorses can't be attributed to use of such medications given other factors in the business.
He said if a group of horses were split in half--half on Salix and Bute, and the other half clean--the horses on Salix and Bute would make more starts than the others if commercial breeding were taken out of the mix. The breeding industry, he said, "takes away a lot of horses" from the racetrack.