The forces opposed to drugs in horse racing now have their poster child – or poster horse if you will. The recent Congressional hearing on the subject will not be the last time you hear the name Coronado Heights bandied about. The four-year old gelding broke down in his third career start and had to be euthanized. What has elevated this $7,500 claimer to prominence is being featured at the Congressional sub-committee hearing on legislation, HR 2012, that would provide federal oversight on the administration of drugs to racehorses. The hearing ended with Congressman Joe Pitts asking two witnesses how the 17 injections given Coronado Heights in the week before his death was “putting the horse first.”
The Congressman, a Republican from Pennsylvania, is one of four co-sponsors of HR 2012. The legislation would authorize the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the organization that finally dropped the hammer on Lance Armstrong, to regulate drugs that can be administered to racehorses, and establish penalties for those individuals violating its rules. The key standard to be used in administering drugs is the principle of the Veterinary-Client-Patient Relationship set forth in the ethical rules of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The essence of a VCPR is that a veterinarian’s treatment of the patient – in this case a racehorse – must be predicated upon the health needs of the animal and the independent professional judgment of the vet. If medication is to be administered, it must be necessary to treat a documented medical condition.
Coronado Heights came to the attention of those who did not handicap Aqueduct’s 10th race on February 25, 2012, when his death was featured in a New York Times article by Joe Drape and three other reporters. The article, published the week of the 2012 Kentucky Derby, included a graphic of 17 syringes depicting the drugs administered to the horse before his fatal race. 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. Coronado Heights was trained by Todd Pletcher who, as I write this, not only leads the nation in purses won this year with $24 million, but is $10 million ahead of number two.
The catastrophic breakdown of Coronado Heights was one of 21 fatalities experienced during the Aqueduct meet of 2011-12. This prompted a call by Governor Andrew Cuomo for an independent review to ascertain the causes of the fatalities and to make recommendations. The Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety could not identify a single factor leading to the breakdowns, but did recommend a regulatory change to increase the time that one of the drugs administered to Coronado Heights in the week before the race could be administered. The drug – Depo-Medrol® – had “been demonstrated to have degradative effects on articular cartilage,” according to the Task Force Report.
At the Congressional hearing, Philip Hanrahan, CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association – the only witness who opposed the legislation of the six testifying – answered Congressman Pitt’s pointed question by quoting from the Task Force Report: “Pre-race medication administered to the fatally injured horses was similar to that administered to the uninjured horses that raced.” (The Report also said that trainer Pletcher “reported that the pre-race medication program for [Coronado Heights] was standard practice for all of the horses in his stable.”) Hanrahan noted that wide-scale drug testing produces negligible results for impermissible medications and concluded that HR 2012 addresses a “problem that in reality does not exist.”
While Hanrahan’s comments may seem tone deaf, they are probably reflective of the industry consensus. I think there are three components to the debate on drugs:
- Drugs for which there is no therapeutic use – there appears to be universal agreement that such violations should be treated severely. (The most recent notorious example being Demorphin, produced from the skin of South American frogs.)
- Lasix – generally the only medication permitted on the day of a race, and at the heart of many of the most heated debates within the thoroughbred community. Advocates of its use point out that it reduces pulmonary bleeding and is not a performance-enhancing drug. It is the latter assertion with which I have the most difficulty. The weight being carried by a horse is a major component of racing. That’s why we have handicap races, assign differing weights based on age or gender, and why apprentice jockeys get a weight allowance. If a three-pound difference in a race among older male horses is important, why is not the 20 pounds a horse may lose in water weight because of Lasix also significant? To say this is not “performance-enhancing” flies in the face of much of racing history and thinking.
- Legal therapeutic medications – all the medications Todd Pletcher had administered to Coronado Heights were legal. For many in racing, that is where the inquiry should end. What HR 2012 would require, however, is that any administered medication must address a specific diagnosis.
While the use of Lasix on race days draws most of the attention within the racing community, it is this third category that is the most troublesome if one’s concern is the widespread perception of rampant drugging. The same day as the Congressional hearing, the California Horse Racing Board released its report on the sudden deaths of seven horses trained by Bob Baffert over a 16-month period ending early this year. “Sudden death” is the acute collapse of a seemingly healthy horse, and is distinguished from the more common musculoskeletal injury that is the more typical cause of a racing fatality. While sudden deaths during training or racing are not uncommon, it was the clustering of such a large number from the Baffert barn that led to the investigation. The investigators concluded the causes of the deaths “remains unexplained,” while also noting that there was “no evidence” of illicit activity or rules violations.
There was one drug, however, that drew extra attention in this Report. Baffert informed investigators that Thyro-L (levothyroxine) was used on all of his horses. The medication – use of which is legal – is for treatment of hypothyroid conditions. The report stated that it is a medication most commonly used to assist in weight loss for overweight horses returning from the farm. Baffert, however, thought the medication was used to help “build up” his horses. While it must be prescribed by a veterinarian, the Report concluded that Baffert used it more as a supplement and it was regularly added to feed tubs by barn staff, including grooms. The Report further added that in its discussions with veterinarians, “prescribing thyroxine without evaluating thyroid levels is consistent with the standard of care for prescribing and dispensing thyroxine at the Thoroughbred race tracks in southern California.” Also, Baffert’s “use of medication and veterinary services … can best be described as moderate.” Baffert discontinued the use of thyroxine in April following the sudden death of his seventh horse. According to one report, he has not had a sudden death injury since then.
The most frequent argument of those defending the use of drugs in racing is that the percentage of horses testing positive in a post-race sample is negligible. And they would be correct. The number cited by Phil Hanrahan in his Congressional testimony is that less than one percent of tests over a four-year period were positive, and a much smaller percentage (142 of 368,900 tests) were for substances that were illegal.
When your prime argument boils down to the seemingly rampant drugging of racehorses being OK because the drugs are legal therapeutic medications – without addressing whether a particular horse needs the medication – you are missing the essential point of the case made by those opposing the racing industry’s use of drugs. I doubt there is a sensible person who would oppose medications for an animal who needs it. But when the nation’s two leading trainers are administering drugs – albeit legal ones – without regard for the medical needs of a particular horse, we are no longer talking about therapeutic drugs, but rather drugs they hope will be performance enhancing. Todd Pletcher said the drugs given Coronado Heights were consistent with what his horses received; Baffert administered the same drug to all his horses without even knowing what the purpose of the drug was. If they give the same drugs to all horses irrespective of an individual’s medical condition, what possible motivation would they have other than enhancing the horse’s performance?
If the top purse earners nationally are acting like this, what do you think will be the message sent to all trainers and owners? If Pletcher and Baffert are engaged in this level of drugging – once more I will emphasize it is legal – why would a lesser trainer not try to stay competitive, particularly when it is becoming increasingly more difficult to compete with the guys who consistently get the best horses? If racing’s leaders do not think this presents a major problem, both for the perception of racing in the general public as well as the many struggling to make a buck in this business, it really is time to get their heads out of the sand.
That brings us back to the main purpose of HR 2012. It’s not that the sponsors want to kill horse racing. It’s that if an animal is being asked to compete in an inherently stressful event for our entertainment, that animal should not be required to absorb drugs that are not needed to address a medical condition. How can this industry oppose legislation that would require that drugs administered to a racehorse be ones necessary to address a medical condition? That’s the main thrust of HR 2012. The bill would not prevent a Coronado Heights from receiving the drugs he did in his last week if they were medically necessary. Of course, if he did need that level of medication, sensible minds might wonder why he was racing at all. And that is the real threat to our sport.