Is Medication Really the Root of Racing's Problems?

Uniformity in equine drug-testing and medication use won't come easy if comments made by panelists at the University of Florida's Equine Medical Symposium are any indication. If anything, the March 15 discussion revealed splits within the racing industry and brought up the question as to whether medication is really the root of the industry's problems.

Spiced by the occasional loaded question by moderator Ed Bowen, president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, the panel discussion focused on use of therapeutic medication in racehorses, the possible reasons for a decline in number of starts per horse the past 40 years, and what should be done to level the playing field in regard to penalties for drug infractions. Uniformity got high marks in all categories -- but that's where the agreement ended in many cases.

Veterinarians on the panel espoused the use of therapeutic medications even as a national movement grows to ban all drugs but furosemide (Salix) on race day. They said suggested horses are sounder now than they were a few decades ago, and that other factors -- not medication -- have contributed to problems in the industry.

Bowen said the average number of starts per year for a racehorse has gone from 11 to less than seven in 40 years. It was noted that Seabiscuit raced almost 40 times as a 2-year-old.

"Horses are sounder now, and the therapeutic benefits we have today are far superior," said Dr. Mark Cheney, a racetrack veterinarian in Florida and Kentucky. "We didn't even an endoscope 20 years ago. The problem is a horse's musculoskeletal system is not as strong today. For a 2-year-old to be racing 39 times would be impossible.

"People are raising horses for the sales and not for racing. It's more of a business now. Young horses are spending 15 to 20 hours in a stall, and their bones and ligaments don't develop. They don't stand up to training."

Cheney cited other factors such as the environment -- ozone and pollen, for instance -- as reasons why horses bleed. He then suggested to target therapeutic medication as a reason horses make fewer starts is "absurd."

"If you stopped use of all therapeutics, the number would go down to five or six starts per year for a horse," Cheney said.

Trainer Ken McPeek suggested the Thoroughbred breeding industry is in part responsible for the decrease in the number of starts per horse. He said the economics of the business have made horses more valuable; therefore, they don't race as much, and are often are retired early, mostly for breeding purposes.

"Horses are every bit as sound today," McPeek said. "You can't blame medication for the problem. I think there is a correlation between (number of starts) and (the breeding industry), but how significant it is, I'm not sure."

Jim Gallagher, nearing the end of his run as executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Racing Integrity and Drug Testing Task Force, said some people believed legalization of furosemide in New York would help increase field size, but it didn't. He said it appears liberal use of the bronchodilator clenbuterol hasn't bumped up fields, either.

"I think we've seen in the past that people raced horses and trained them," Gallagher said. "Now, I think there's more training and less racing."

Dan Metzger, president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, said the organization is crunching some numbers to determine possible causes for the decline in number of starts per horse. Metzger noted there are more racetracks and more races, not necessarily a good combination.

"I don't think there is a need for racing six days a week, with 10 or 11 races a day," he said.

Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, targeted regulators such as racing commissioners in his comments. He indicated environmental contamination is a perfect example of why the system needs to be fixed.

"Regulators will have to get away their parochial views and look at it from a national sense," Stirling said. "It can be done. It exists in Canada."

In regard to penalties, Stirling supports a "no harm, no foul" process that has graduated penalties for subsequent offenses. Jeff Noe, a steward in Florida, said each case should be taken on its own merits because there can be extenuating circumstances. McPeek said he'd like to see each state's medication guidelines and penalties in print.

In closing comments, Gallagher discussed the progress of the NTRA task force and noted a "tremendous groundswell of support" for uniformity even though super-testing results failed to indicated widespread medication abuse in Thoroughbred racing. Still, he said, that belief haunts the process.

"The dilemma the industry has is this," Gallagher said. "When somebody's doing well, they have to be doing something wrong to be doing well."