Break the Habit

By Barry Irwin -- One of Team Valor's 15 trainers recently told me the stable veterinarian had urged the trainer to put half a dozen horses on clenbuterol as an experiment. The vet said the practice's most successful clients had a majority of their horses on the stuff and our trainer was "missing the boat."

The trainer told me that one of the six horses is owned by Team Valor.

I told the trainer not to put the horse on clenbuterol unless it was sick, which is supposed to be the reason the drug is prescribed.

The trainer and veterinarian are sincere professionals. They both try their hardest to put the welfare of the horse first.

Yet, both of them want to jump on the clenbuterol bandwagon for reasons of survival as practitioners of their craft.

The trainer wants to use the drug because the conditioner honestly believes that without the drug, others will have an edge over the stable's runners.

The vet recommends the drug because he thinks it makes horses run so much better that if he fails to prescribe it, the horses under his care will not keep pace with horses treated with the drug. Clients may switch to a different vet.

On the backstretches of the major racetracks in America, horses that are not suffering from an acute respiratory illness are routinely treated with clenbuterol because trainers and vets feel they must in order to keep up with the Joneses.

While prominent vets will tell you until the cows come home that clenbuterol is not all that it is cracked up to be, urban racetrack legend holds that because of its steroidal effects and ability to clear a wide path in the trachea of an equine athlete, it may be the most powerful performance enhancer currently available in the trunk of the veterinary vehicle.

Pro-clenbuterol vets deny the drug has steroidal effects, yet the United States Anti-Doping Association for track and field lists clenbuterol as an "anabolic agent" and it is a prohibited substance, as is the diuretic furosemide, which additionally is listed as a "masking agent." These drugs are banned for competition and for training.

As an owner contemplating the use of clenbuterol I have to consider the welfare of the animal and the cost of the drug. Clenbuterol, if used routinely, costs $250 to $300 a month. Its effects on a horse can be harsh because it makes horses shake like an alcoholic with D.T.'s.

If racing jurisdictions had kept a ban on clenbuterol, which was illegal to possess, let alone be used, until the late 1990s, nobody would have to consider its use today. But now, conscientious professionals feel impelled to use the insidious drug in order to stay in business.

So, along with several other drugs that are deemed illegal and improper for use by Olympic athletes, clenbuterol is now the latest "must" for horsemen.

My trainer has forced me to reconsider my involvement in racing, because I do not see how to break the cycle of the introduction of one new drug after another.

Racetracks want drugs because they have been sold a bill of goods by horsemen and veterinarians convincing them that without these medications there will not be enough horses to put on a racing program.

How is this insanity going to stop?

The only answer is hay, oats, and water.

A policy of hay, oats, and water would place everybody on a level playing field. It would save the expense-plagued owner thousands of dollars every year on every horse in the barn.

Hay, oats, and water will return the onus of getting a horse to perform from the little black bag to the hands of a horseman, where it was in the days when Seabiscuit ran 35 races at two. Under the stewardship of the modern veterinarian, 35 races would be an extraordinarily lengthy career.

This game is running out of players willing to pay the bucks to support a drug habit that is being pushed by the very guardians of our sport.

Who is going to step up into a leadership position and take a stand to roll back the current medication policies?

Barry Irwin is president of Team Valor.