You know the expression: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That doesn’t actually apply in the world of American horse racing because things don’t change all that much.
This past week the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium issued a “Thyroxine Advisory” in concert with the American Association of Equine Practitioners. It was a necessary step according to the groups because of evidence of “wholesale use of thyroxine in entire populations of racehorses as a ‘wellness’ supplement rather than as the prescription medication that it is.”
When I showed their news release to my spouse, she responded, “Is that from five years ago?” While her memory on pedigrees is close to infallible, she was off this time by two years. Thyroxine hit the spotlight in the world of racing seven years ago in connection with an investigation of a cluster of cardiac fatalities in the barn of trainer Bob Baffert.
Although the California Horse Racing Board did not pinpoint the use of thyroxine as the cause of the “extremely abnormal” cluster, Baffert acknowledged giving the drug to all the horses in his barn. He did so even though it is a prescription medication intended for treatment of specific medical conditions.
The CHRB issued its own guidance in May, 2014, to address what it called “apparently indiscriminate use” of the medication. It required that thyroxine only be administered for a “specific horse and condition” and prescribed by a CHRB-licensed veterinarian.
That month was also the time of reports by NBC and HBO on the controversies regarding the treatment of horses, partially sparked by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals putting an undercover agent in the barns of Steve Asmussen at Churchill Downs and Saratoga.
HBO reporter Bernard Goldberg questioned Asmussen about a filly suffering a fatal heart attack after crossing the finish line. Asmussen acknowledged the horse had received both Lasix and Clenbuterol (both legal medications at the time). Then he said that he “feeds” thyroxine to his horses. Again, treating it as a nutritional supplement as opposed to a prescription medication with potentially serious side effects.
The New York State Gaming Commission conducted an investigation of the many allegations by PETA of abuse in the Asmussen barn. They cleared him of many of the claims, but did find that 58 of the 66 horses that ran in Saratoga in 2013 were incorrectly administered thyroxine too close to a race. They fined him $10,000, although my calculations at the time concluded that the minimum fine should have been $29,000. For one of the game’s most successful trainers, $29K probably amounts to a rounding error.
So there you have it. Two Hall-of-Fame trainers are found to have violated standard veterinary guidelines and administered a prescription medication as a matter of course regardless of whether it was being used to treat a medical condition. One was not penalized and the other got a slap on the wrist.
So I wonder why it became necessary five years later to issue an “advisory” restating that standard guideline because of concerns over “wholesale” use of a prescription medication as a nutritional supplement.
It may not have been deliberate, but the RMTC and AAEP did not issue the advisory until after The Jockey Club Round Table on August 16. It has become a forum for the necessity of a national body that oversees uniform regulations and a consistent enforcement mechanism.
In that interview on HBO with Bernard Goldberg, Asmussen explained his 28 drug violations (in 2014) as the result of inconsistent state regulations. With the New York findings that number is now at least 86. The cheaters are just laughing at the rest of us who want a clean sport.