Gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson coined the phrase, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." The wacky, win-at-any-cost world of sports today is plenty weird and offers multiple examples on a weekly, if not daily, basis that make the phrase one of fact, not speculation.
One case in point is a recent edition of Sports Illustrated
. In the nation's premier sports magazine's news section is a box under the heading: "This week's sign of the apocalypse." The item? "Racing pigeons in Great Britain are now being tested for performance-enhancing drugs."
A quick Internet search listed several stories about the Royal Pigeon Racing Association and its reaction to complaints that some birds were being given steroids and hormones to enhance racing performance.
Sound familiar? No one in the Thoroughbred industry should throw a stone at this story. Instead, it might be a good time to take a closer look into the dark corners inside our own closet.
Rumors swirl around sale grounds about auction horses--weanlings, yearlings, and 2-year-olds--being pumped up on growth-enhancing products. The racetrack has been a centuries-old breeding ground for tales of chicanery, miraculous turnarounds in form, and mysterious flops by short-priced runners.
It's one thing if human athletes opt to inject or ingest something that might give them a supposed edge in competition. That would be their choice to step outside the lines of their sport. The governing body, be it the International Olympic Committee, Major League Baseball, the National Football League--whoever--is responsible for making its own rules inside the limits of national laws as to what constitutes a legal training practice and what is banned.
But racing pigeons? Thoroughbreds? Please.
I was taught about Thoroughbred racing first through family members, and then was lucky enough to learn the true nuts and bolts of the sport under one of the best, Kent Hollingsworth, the former editor of this publication. His "Hay, Oats, and Water" mantra was a charge for cleanliness, fairness, and moral responsibility at a time when the rules about legal, race-day medications would forever change the game. These days, it's "Hay, Oats, and Water...and whatever medications are legal in a given jurisdiction."
Another recent news item--covered in The Blood-Horse
--addressed the California Horse Racing Board's proposed ban on "milkshakes" and its 45-day public comment period.
In random tests conducted at Del Mar this year the presence of possible milkshaking of a horse was detected in 10% of the horses checked. If you have heard the whispers, this practice, not only in California, goes much higher than 10%.
And while the industry should applaud California's proposed ban, it might chastise the state for dragging its feet, as other states like Louisiana and Kentucky banned the practice several years ago.
Why does the CHRB need a 45-day public comment period? Is anyone going to step forward to publically sing the praises of milkshaking?
Thoroughbred racing has had a long and colorful past; a side shot of hoodwinking and deception in putting one over on the public or a newcomer has been a part of the flavor. Tastes change.
It's time to take a step forward. Let's ensure that the newly-formed Sales Integrity Task Force will have some teeth to make true changes in certain sale practices. Let's hope state racing jurisdictions will continue to look at medication policies with a more stringent eye. It's time to band together to back the NTRA's Wagering Systems Task Force's recommendations to upgrade Tote security to ensure our game is on the square for the bettor.
In the vast wasteland...er, landscape...of professional sports in the 21st century, there are too many options out there for not only the public, but for those upon whom the industry is relying--new investors and owners.
Just as trickle-down theorists often quote "a rising tide lifts all boats," so too must the opposite be true. The industry can't afford to find itself on that tack. Anything less than taking the high road will make the future of Thoroughbred racing seem all too weird. b
EVAN I. HAMMONDS is managing editor of The Blood-Horse