This time it wasn’t People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) or its undercover investigator. It was Bryant Gumbel on HBO”s Real Sports. And it’s NBC News with a report by Anna Schecter. Both reports indict the racing industry for the widespread use of drugs that make horses run faster or mask pain so they can run.
The HBO report by Bernard Goldberg is sickening. It includes ample video of breakdowns during a race, dead horses on the track, and a particularly disturbing look at a horse being put down in a part of Penn National called “The Pit.” While HBO used excerpts from the PETA video, Goldberg also interviewed Steve Asmussen and Scott Blasi, the targets of PETA, as well as veterinarians Dr. Mary Scollay and Dr. Kate Papp, the subject of the NBC report.
Although much of the HBO report has been reported previously, the adage of “a picture being worth a thousand words” is rarely this forceful. And it comes at a time when racing is getting the most attention it ever does with a Triple Crown bid coming up.
The trainers featured in the piece just happen to be the top three by earnings this year, according to Equibase. The Todd Pletcher trainee Coronado Heights, one of the 19 horses who suffered a fatal breakdown racing at Aqueduct in early 2012, is mentioned because he received 17 injections of drugs – each one legal – in the week before breaking down. Bob Baffert’s indiscriminate use of Thyroxine, a medication used to treat a thyroid condition, was discussed in the context of seven sudden deaths of horses trained by him. Again, the medication is legal, but there was no diagnosis by a vet that any of the horses needed it.
Then there is Steve Asmussen, second on the earnings list, the active leader in career wins – and 28 drug violations attributed, according to Asmussen, to differing state regulations. It was Asmussen’s barns at Churchill Downs and Saratoga at which PETA’s undercover investigator worked, secretly recording the treatment of horses.
Goldberg questioned Scott Blasi and then Asmussen about a horse that suffered a fatal heart attack just after crossing the finish line. Neither seemed to be aware the reporter had a copy of the horse’s vet records. Blasi said she only received Lasix. Asmusssen acknowledged Lasix and Clenbuterol. It turns out that in addition to those two medications, she had also been given Thyroxine, a medication that has as a side effect increasing the heart rate. Asmussen ended up admitting – as he phrased it – that he “feeds” Thyroxine. It’s as though a drug with a significant side effect is a nutritional supplement.
In the NBC report – entitled “Every Day I Almost Quit” – veterinarian Kate Papp described once diagnosing a horse with a stress fracture in a hind leg, convincing the trainer to given the horse some time off. The owner, however, switched trainers and got another vet to inject the horse. The horse broke its leg during the race and was euthanized on the track.
It is not just the equine athletes that are in jeopardy, of course, because there is a human on its back when it trains or races. HBO showed former exercise rider James Rivera, now a quadriplegic with permanent brain damage as the result of a training breakdown. Dr. Papp examined the horse’s vet records and concluded that the administered drugs indicated “underlying painful or diseased conditions.”
Many in racing dismissed the PETA video because of the group’s explicit agenda and the fact that some seven hours of video were edited down to nine minutes. I don’t know how much raw footage HBO took to come up with its narrative, but it doesn’t matter anymore than it does with PETA. While there is a level of sensationalism with so many shots of breakdowns, those in the industry know it is a disturbing reality in the sport.
The more disturbing reality, however, is that horses are given too many drugs, even if they are “legal.” They are often given, as HBO stated, to make a horse run faster or to mask a painful condition, and not because it is necessary to treat a diagnosed medical issue. One segment of the PETA video that was replayed by HBO was of a vet describing Lasix as a performance-enhancing drug. Almost every horse racing in this country is racing with Lasix. Thyroxine is being “fed” to horses not because it is necessary, but because it is viewed as a performance-enhancer.
How does the racing fan respond when asked about the HBO report? “Oh, all those drugs are legal.” That isn’t the answer to the problem. It is the problem.
When a respected journalist describes racing as having a “rampant drug culture – one governed by greed,” it is well past the time to take corrective steps. Racing leaders will say the industry is taking steps to address abuse, and they are. But as Dr. Mary Scollay, the Equine Medical Director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and an author of the landmark report analyzing the 2012 Aqueduct fatalities said, “There is no excuse for us not doing better than we’re doing.”