Major League Baseball is trying to come to grips with a growing drug scandal involving anabolic steroids that some people feel already has tarnished some of the sport's most sacred records. It's one scandal that, for now, racing has managed to avoid.
A cover story in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated quoted former major leaguer Ken Caminiti as saying half of today's baseball players take anabolic steroids to build muscle mass and enhance performance. Another major leaguer, recently retired Jose Canseco, who reportedly will expose steroid abuse by himself and others in an upcoming tell-all autobiography, estimated 85% of major league players use the substance.
Steroids in baseball first came to light in 1998 when Mark McGwire admitted taking the widely available hormone androstendione during his successful chase of Roger Maris' home run record. Barry Bonds, the new home run king who smashed McGwire's record last year, is questioned constantly about whether he has taken steroids to bulk up.
Other sports, including professional basketball and football, have a ban on steroids along with a drug-testing policy. In track and field, where steroid abuse can run rampant, athletes are tested not only during competition but while in training. But baseball neither bans nor tests for steroids.
There's a very good chance that will change. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said on June 10 he plans to conduct a hearing in a Senate commerce subcommittee concerning baseball and the use of steroids.
Horse racing doesn't ban steroids, either. In fact, anabolic steroids are considered a therapeutic medication rather than a performance-enhancing substance. The American Association of Equine Practitioners, in a 1991 position, made several recommendations on their use, saying steroids should only be prescribed where a doctor/client relationship exists, that the use should be for treatment of specific medical conditions, and that steroids should not be given on the day of a race or competition.
The AAEP position also states that "one common misconception is that a horse which has received anabolic steroids...has an unfair advantage by increasing his or her natural ability. At this time, there is no scientific evidence in horses to support such a perception; however, irresponsible use...may contribute to this belief."
Anabolic steroids can be used legitimately to help a horse recover from trauma, surgery, parasites, or disease. Steroids can improve a horse's appetite, promote weight gain, speed the healing process, and stimulate growth, among other things. However, as with humans, abuse of steroids in horses can cause negative side effects, including reproductive problems in both males and females. If given to young horses, steroids can cause premature closure of growth plates.
Medication is a front-and-center issue for many people in the Thoroughbred industry today, but steroids have not been in the crosshairs. Perhaps it is because testing for steroids is a complex issue, making them difficult to regulate, or because there is no scientific proof that the use of steroids enhances performance.
The more serious question is what inappropriate use of anabolic steroids may do to the long-term soundness and health of the horse, especially if that horse is put on a steroid program prior to being sold as a weanling, yearling, or 2-year-old. Judging from the comments of a number of buyers at public auction, some breeders and consignors are fattening and muscling up their young horses with steroids, a practice they surely know is not in the best long-term interests of the breed.
Unlike baseball, horse racing's performance records are not being shattered by today's equine athletes. But the national pastime and horse racing share a common problem--only no one is yet talking about steroids and horses.