Thoroughbred racing is facing its latest crisis as a result of a large number of fatalities at Santa Anita Park. Since its current meet began on December 26, 23 horses have been fatally injured while racing or training. The Stronach Group that owns and operates Santa Anita responded with measures that are revolutionary in a business that typically moves with the speed of a slow-moving glacier. They are adopting “house rules” that will prohibit the use of the whip except when needed as a safety measure, and also gradually ban the race-day medication Lasix. Other medications that are permissible will be subject to stricter standards.
As significant as these changes are, the real story is whether this crisis is the one that will ultimately end the sport. It is more than a public relations crisis, and is increasingly being viewed as an existential one.
Some people – OK, most people – undoubtedly view the prohibition on whipping an animal and administering drugs to that animal so that it can race as no-brainers. That is, if they are not shocked that both practices are currently allowed in all racing jurisdictions in the United States.
California’s racing leaders are seriously concerned that a ballot initiative could ban racing in the state. One statistic I saw is that placing a measure on the state-wide ballot requires 600,000 signatures and that PETA, a leader in protests over the fatalities, has 700,000 members in California. Senator Diane Feinstein and Congressperson Judy Chu (who represents the district including Santa Anita) have both expressed serious reservations about the state of racing. According to Bill Finley in Thoroughbred Daily News, the Los Angeles Times has called for racing to be suspended until the track determines the causes of the fatalities.
Unfortunately, that same sense of urgency – and, I would suggest, reality – does not apply to other influential voices in the racing industry.
There are the national and local organizations representing trainers and owners. When these modern-day Rip Van Winkles finally wake up, there may no longer be a sport of horse racing. The National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) held its national convention in mid-March as the crisis at Santa Anita was coming to a head. If you listened to them, you would think the key to bringing in new fans and increasing handle was not in changing a broad-based negative perception, but in providing free past performance data. I did not see a single media account of any discussion of the situation in California.
It’s not surprising that this group did not want to discuss the reality of what is going on at Santa Anita. They are in the forefront of the denialism that racing has a significant perception problem caused by the use of drugs. In written testimony for a Congressional hearing on proposed federal legislation last June, Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National HBPA, stated:
“The support for [the federal legislation] comes from a well-financed vocal minority of owners and trainers … who claim ‘the fragmented system of medication regulation is not working.’ The implication here is that the result is widespread illegal drug use or ‘cheating.’ However, those who make that claim offer no evidence to support the notion of rampant illegal drug use. That is no surprise because there is none that I know of….
Any asserted problem is one of misperception caused by recurrent sensationalism in the public media….
Horse racing in the United States has the most comprehensive testing program of any sport in the world and employs the most sophisticated and sensitive equipment found anywhere….
… 99.5% of over 354,000 tests of biological samples taken from thoroughbred race horses were negative for drug use…. these results should be the envy of every other sport that tests athletes for drugs….”
There’s a lot to unpack in that brief excerpt. For starters, the notion that horse racing has the most sophisticated testing that “should be the envy of every other sport” is downright ludicrous. When a horse of the stature of a Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson, Robinson Cano or Julian Edelman is sanctioned for illegal drug use we might give some credence to Hamelback’s hyperbole.
The “99.5 per cent” figure is regularly used by the denialists to prove the sport is clean. I do not dispute that is an accurate number, but it is so high because there are a number of drugs that cannot be detected by the supposedly “sophisticated” testing of Hamelback’s imagination.
The racing media has been filled recently with articles about bisphosphonate. I had not heard of this one until a couple of weeks ago when the mid-Atlantic tracks and sales companies started restricting its usage. According to Dr. Rick Arthur, California’s Equine Medical Director, it does not have a legitimate therapeutic use at a track. The concern, however, is that it can be used on younger horses going through a sale to hide radiographic evidence of a bone issue. Nice, right, for an industry seeking to convince folks there is nothing to see here? While sales companies say a horse testing positive for bisphosphonates can be returned, there is not yet a reliable test when the drug is administered sufficiently far in advance of the sale. So I guess there would be a 100% rate of sales horses testing negative for bisphosphonates.
Then there is Hamelback’s argument that the “well-financed” proponents of federal legislation are implying that there is “widespread” and “rampant” cheating. I am not aware of any responsible person associated with racing saying there is “rampant” cheating. But I have also never met an owner, trainer, track worker, race track employee or fan who does not believe there is cheating. The widespread perception that cheating is a regular feature of racing, even if limited, is devastating.
Finally, there are the well-worn tropes that “the media” is responsible for the negative perceptions and that “we need to do a better job of educating the public.” Ed Martin, President of the Association of Racing Commissioners International laments that all the money spent on, among others, “bloggers” could be better devoted to research. (I take particular umbrage at that one since I have not seen the largesse.) The difficulty, however, lies in convincing the public that whipping a horse or giving it drugs so it can race are actions inspired by a love for the animal.
We do not know if the causes of any of the Santa Anita fatalities are related to drugs. From what I know of Lasix, it would be astonishing if the diuretic was the direct cause of any fatalities, let alone 23 of them. But The Stronach Group’s announcement of a ban had less to do with a possible cause for the fatalities, and more to do with a perception that race-day medications are harming the sport, if not the horse.
The use of drugs in horse racing is more complicated than whether race-day medications should be permitted. I think there are three categories into which drugs can be grouped.
The first – and easiest to deal with – are drugs that have no therapeutic value and are only used because of performance-enhancing aspects or to mask pain in the horse. Out-of-Competition Testing is intended to identify these substances. But if a state such as New York doesn’t take it seriously, abuse is likely to be more widespread. New York doesn’t even track the results of whatever testing it does, and in response to a public records request covering periods of several years, could not identify a single thoroughbred testing positive. Charles Hayward, who just wrote an excellent piece on the medication issue for Thoroughbred Racing Commentary pointed out that California has no penalties for violations.
The second group consists of Lasix. It is the only medication approved in every racing jurisdiction in the United States for use on the day of a race, but is illegal in every other country with racing. Its stated purpose is to prevent Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhaging – more commonly referred to as “bleeding.” Regulations typically require that a veterinarian must establish that a horse bled in order for it to be given the medication. The reality is that it is a rule observed more in its breach than its observance. I have had a vet recommend Lasix even though there was no indication the horse bled. And the reality is that approximately 95 per cent of the horses on a given race card are being given the drug.
The other reality is that it is a performance-enhancing drug. It causes a horse to lose some 20 pounds in weight because of its diuretic effect. If weight is not an important factor in racing, we would not give a weight break to apprentice jockeys, nor have “handicap” races in which horses are assigned different weights based on expected performance. Even those owners and trainers expressing public opposition to Lasix continue to administer it to their own horses so as not to lose what is widely acknowledged as an “advantage.”
The third category is the one that I think would be much more troubling than the use of Lasix but for the fact there is no data on usage. These are legal and permissible therapeutic medications. Racing deals with this category by specifying withdrawal times before a race and levels of concentration during a post-race test below which there is no violation. Thus, New York prohibits the administration of butorphanol within 96 hours of a race, and a concentration level below 300 ng/ml in a post-race test carries no penalty.
A horse, of course, can experience any number of ailments for which a medication may be an essential treatment. Standards of veterinary care require that the ailment be diagnosed and treatment recommended by a vet who has examined the animal. The problem arises when the “legal” drug continues to be administered even after the need for it no longer exists. There are two examples in recent years in which this has been abundantly clear.
The New York Gaming Commission publishes three days of veterinary records immediately before Grade I races having a purse of $1 million or more. In the first year of the Commission making these results available, there was a remarkable situation. One high-profile trainer who had numerous horses entered in such races administered the same drug, with the same dosage, for every one of his horses every day. It of course defies common sense that this was the result of a vet examining the horse, finding that each had the same condition, and then prescribing the same medication. I must not have been the only person noticing this seeming anomaly because in subsequent years the practice stopped.
In the other example, a high-profile trainer’s horse was “featured” in a New York Times article because he was one of the fatalities at Aqueduct in 2011-12 that was their own crisis of equine deaths. The accompanying article stated the gelding experienced pain and cartilage damage from a degenerative joint disease, and had been injected 13 times in the month before the race to treat that condition, including an injection into a joint five days before the race. Again, this was a “legal” drug administered within “legal” restrictions. It is, however, a medication that if administered in the described manner meant the horse had no business on a race track. (New York has since tightened its regulations on joint injections.)
Are there other examples today of similarly horrifying stories? Of course there are, unless you are a hopeless naïf or the head of an organization such as the National HBPA or ARCI. Is racing taking steps to improve the situation? They are. In the examples just cited, New York required reports that resulted in identifying one problem and took corrective actions following the other. Is the progress sufficient? Not if you are a horse or a jockey – or a member of the general public.
And there are those whose awareness of racing’s current environment are as clueless as that of Rip Van Winkle upon awakening. Veterinarian Jeff Blea commented that Santa Anita field sizes have been down in recent weeks because of the crisis:
“Trainers are doing their jobs. Veterinarians are doing their jobs. People aren’t wanting to push these horses and take those risks like they did before.”
Blea is Chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Racing Committee, quoted in Thoroughbred Daily News on April 20.
While one might expect that veterinarians would be in the forefront of safety initiatives, his approach is not dissimilar to that of New York’s Equine Medical Director Scott Palmer, DVM, who recently convinced New York’s Gaming Commission to weaken a safety regulation enacted after New York experienced its own crisis of track fatalities in 2011-12. Palmer acknowledged the increased risk to the horse (and jockey) but thought it could be offset by other measures.
Fortunately, there are industry figures who do not believe there is an acceptable level of horse deaths that will be acceptable to the public. The first, of course, is Belinda Stronach taking radical steps to address the negative perceptions heightened by the Santa Anita fatalities.
The reforms announced by The Stronach Group go well beyond the banning of race-day medications. But the Lasix ban prompted a coalition of other tracks to adopt their own restrictions on the diuretic, banning its use on two-year-olds in 2020 and in many stakes races starting in 2021. While many have praised this as a good first step, it sends an awkward message for a policy intended to address one of racing’s biggest perception problems: if race-day medication is not acceptable for stakes horses and babies, why is it permissible on the lesser horses who make up the vast majority of racehorses?
The Jockey Club is the “breed registry” for the U.S. and Canada, and also keeps valuable data bases on what is going on in the sport, as well as funding important health-related research. In the past month, they published their vision for comprehensive reform, available here, and must-reading for anyone concerned about the future of the sport.
The Jockey Club also supports the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019, H.R. 1754, the current version of legislation that has been introduced in the last two Congresses. The bill would create a private and independent anti-doping authority for horse racing that would establish uniform national standards, overseen by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). The same industry entities leading the fight to keep Lasix also oppose national legislation to establish uniformity on medication policies within the states.
I think that anyone who wants to see racing survive and thrive should make their views known to their U.S. Senators and Members of Congress. Even if Santa Anita weathers this current crisis, there will be another, either there or elsewhere. It is foolhardy to think racing is guaranteed to go on indefinitely. Either racing can present a unified front on reform, or abolition efforts will take over. An institution that arrogantly thinks it can escape change is doomed to failure.