North American Thoroughbred racing can only grow by eliminating the use of all drugs was the central theme of a keynote speech delivered Oct. 30 by prominent owner/breeder George Strawbridge Jr. as The Thoroughbred Club of America’s “Honor Guest.”
Strawbridge, who has bred and raced hundreds of stakes winners through his Augustin Stable since the 1960s, told a crowd of about 250 at Keeneland that racing should enjoy a key advantage because the “noble, inspiring” Thoroughbred horse is at the center of the sport. Instead, he said, the sport is swimming in tumultuous seas with dark and threatening skies largely because medication use has eroded the sport’s integrity and reputation.
He referred to the results of a recent report by McKinsey & Co. for The Jockey Club, which showed the sport losing fans at a rate of 4% a year largely because of medication-related issues. He also pointed out articles critical of race-day medication use published in Time magazine and the New York Times around the time of this year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), which were followed by negative letters to the editor in the Times from people saying they had become “disheartened by (racing’s) lack of attention to animal welfare” and that “no one who really loves horses would be involved in racing.”
“This is what the sport has become associated with, a sinister substance mixed in a black bag,” Strawbridge said. “Holy moly. How on Earth did we get to this sorry state?”
He answered his own question by pointing out that weak and ineffective consequences for drug positives is allowing the use of prohibited drugs to continue unchecked.
“Last December, Dick Dutrow mocked the process when he agreed to serve his suspension in December when he was planning to go on vacation in the Caribbean with some of his owners,” Strawbridge said. “We all know the story of a trainer caught with enough snake venom to poison a small country, and he is still training in the U.S. By the way, this trainer is banned in the rest of the world.”
He was referring to trainer Patrick Biancone who was suspended after cobra venom and other substances were found in his barn at Keeneland three years ago. Biancone was suspended six months and then did not seek licensing for an additional six months before resuming his training career. He is now licensed in eight North American jurisdictions.
Strawbridge went on to tell heart-breaking stories of horses he'd heard about at low-level tracks being given drugs to continue running in cheap races despite having arthritic and damaged joints.
Strawbridge did not mention federal legislation that has been proposed for creating a national medication policy, but acknowledged that slow progress was being made by Breeders’ Cup Ltd. and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association’s American Graded Stakes Committee regarding the prohibition of Salix on race day. Currently Salix is a legal race-day medication, but in 2012 the Breeders’ Cup is banning its use on race day in all of the World Championships' juvenile races, and the AGSC announced a pilot program also for 2012 that will ban the use of Salix on race day in all 2-year-old graded stakes.
Salix is a controversial medication, considered by many to be a performance-enhancing substance and by others to have no effect on performance except as an important therapeutic medication for preventing bleeding.
“What is our hope for the future? Our hope is change,” Strawbridge said. “We have begun but we must do more. Thankfully, we have role models throughout the rest of the world." All other major racing jurisdictions overseas ban the use of all medication on race day.
"Emulating the success model of the rest of the world would be a big start toward respecting the star of our sport. We need to stop treating the Thoroughbred as a commodity and start showing the public, and our fans, that we care and that we are a clean and legitimate sport. The Thoroughbred never, and I repeat, will never let you down. My hope is that we will stop letting this noble animal down.”