Participants in a July 10 medication workshop reached the consensus that "over-medication" may contribute to fewer starts by racehorses, but other factors -- racetrack surfaces, an emphasis on speed, too much pressure on 2-year-olds, and a thirst for quick profit -- probably are just as responsible.
The workshop, held during the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association summer convention in Cleveland, Ohio, was designed to bring horsemen up to speed on current issues. Use of therapeutic medication has been a lightning rod.
"For those that say (over-medication of racehorses) is the only reason for fewer starts, that's over-simplification," said Lonny Powell, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International. "This industry has placed an emphasis on speed ... that has an ultimate impact on the soundness of horses."
Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida HBPA and a former trainer, targeted breeze-ups held before 2-year-old in training sales. He said the horses are made to go too fast too soon, and may in fact need therapeutic medication because they are "damaged goods," and because the people who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in them need a return on their investment.
"To me, it seems like these horses aren't mature enough to be doing this," Stirling said.
Stirling went so far as to say purses for 2-year-old races should be decreased, and the money funneled to races for older horses. Though Breeders' Cup wasn't mentioned, the organization recently approved a $500,000 purse hike for the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile, in part to stimulate the market and encourage more investment in young horses at auction.
"I think we all know speed kills," Stirling said.
Panelists said the situation has developed over time as the breeding industry has focused on 2-year-old speed and a quick return on investment. Stirling said it has carried over to older horses: A recent condition book in Florida had 24 races for older horses that were less than six furlongs in distance, while five years ago, the number of races in that category was seven, and in 1991, it was zero.
Said Dr. Scot Waterman, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium: "There has been a big shift in the breeding industry that probably coincides with a drop in the number of starts as much as the medication issue does."
"We're breeding more unsoundness to unsoundness to take advantage of skyrocketing yearling prices and to get a fast return," Stirling said.
Breeding and 2-year-old speed dominated the discussion, though track surfaces also got a mention. Powell, who at one time was a racetrack manager, noted the pressure of filling races and maintaining all-weather surfaces add to the problem of horses making fewer starts. Powell and Conrad Cohen of the Ontario HBPA said sandier tracks can increase the chances of soft-tissue injury.
"It's an absolute no-win situation," Powell said.
Stirling cited research that shows Thoroughbreds made an average of 9.2 starts in 1980, but only about seven in 2000. He then said Standardbreds made an average of 16.1 starts in 1980, and 16.4 last year. The Standardbred industry also has problems with medication, but the horses obviously don't train or race as fast as Thoroughbreds, he said.
"Can somebody explain this one to me?" Stirling said. "It can't just be over-medication."
Panelists also discussed out-of-competition testing and blood-doping, or use of erythropoeitin. They cited jurisdictions that have used a test for EPO antibodies -- New York, Texas, and Ontario, Canada -- but noted there is no scientific basis for the test, and also no recognized information on how long the antibodies remain in a horse's system.
"It could be superb," Dr. Thomas Tobin, a pharmacologist and National HBPA medication advisor, said of the test for antibodies, "but as scientists, we don't know that at this time."