Irwin: Race-day medication ban all about perception
Barry Irwin, the founder and CEO of Team Valor International, has been an outspoken advocate for elimination of race-day medication in North America. In the following commentary, Irwin explains why it is important for the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association not to abandon its proposal to have all American Graded Stakes for 2-year-olds run without race-day medication.
I want to see race day medication banned in graded races for 2-year-olds.
Like most people in the game, I’ve heard the rationale from trainers and veterinarians as to why race day drugs are considered a necessity. I also have heard from the hay-oats-and-water crowd. I am one of them.
What it all boils down to from my own perspective, as a syndicator of racing partnerships and a promoter of racing to newcomers, is the public’s perception of our sport.
In a sport that is clawing and scratching to stay relevant in the 21st century, the only thing that matters is what the public thinks of our sport.
In a nutshell, race day medication is perceived by the public as juicing horses in order to render them healthy and sound enough to race. Nothing any horseman or veterinarian can say to explain the positive benefits of race day meds can alter that public perception.
If our sport cannot be conducted without the use of race day meds, then we really don’t have a sport that is viable. I would question the ethics and morals of why we would continue to subject our animals to this sort of treatment. Those people that say it is their moral and professional duty to treat our horses on race day have it all wrong.
If we say to the public that there will be less chance of a horse bleeding by administering it Lasix, then what we are really saying is that too many horses bleed on a regular basis and that PETA is correct that we are being cruel to our horses. Either way, proponents of race day meds have a position that is indefensible.
Human beings have a less efficient respiratory and circulatory system than a racehorse, yet somehow we are able to participate in track and field while running medication free. Thoroughbreds have been selectively bred for generations to be athletes and some would have us believe that they cannot compete when medication free. This makes no sense.
Ever since the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association announced that it would have to postpone its initiative to convince major racing jurisdictions to cease using Lasix for 2-year-olds in graded races, the subject of race day meds has gone viral in the racing community. TOBA took its members and the racing public by surprise when, seemingly out of the blue, they announced their failure, because they had provided no advance warning.
Well meaning and admirable people on the HOAW side of the argument vented their frustrations in an emotional manner that was out of character for them. These folks had counted on TOBA to follow the Breeders’ Cup lead in banning race day meds for juveniles commencing with the 2012 event at Santa Anita. When they suspected that TOBA had wimped out and caved in to trainers and racing boards, they lost their cool.
I don’t hold it against them. But I would suggest to them, as well as to anybody else that might want to quit TOBA, that this is exactly the wrong time to be jumping ship. The HOAW crowd needs solidarity on this issue, not frustrated citizens venting their spleens.
A great part of the problem is that TOBA did an inadequate job in updating and informing its members of the roadblocks that were preventing them from being able to successfully complete their mission on the drug initiative.
I am hopeful, once cooler heads prevail, that TOBA will regroup and zero in on a strategy that will win the day for them, because without a victory on this issue, racing most surely will continue marginalizing itself to a point where it will become totally irrelevant.
TOBA asked trainers and racing regulators to consider an experiment in which race day meds would be withheld from graded races for 2-year-olds to see how it would impact these races. Trainers have vehemently opposed this experiment and regulators have remained inactive.
If trainers and vets are really convinced that their position about the use of race day meds is correct, then why not agree to TOBA’s experiment and prove them wrong?
Nobody in racing can justify the use of race day medication. Proponents of race day meds can talk all they want about protecting the health of our horses by administering drugs, but the bottom line is that most of the rest of the world has gotten along without this stuff forever on race day.
Outside of America, the public perception is that our trainers cheat and rely on drugs. I don’t believe many trainers cheat, but I do believe that the overwhelming majority of them rely on drugs. Heck, why wouldn’t they? As Bill Casner pointed out to me the other day, most of the trainers that ply their trade today have known no other way, since they began training when permissive medication was already the law. Nobody is asking them not to train their stock on drugs, just not to race them on medication.
Some U. S.-based conditioners have trained in locales where race day meds are not legal and these horsemen do not live in morbid fear of a change in policy.
Regardless of what side of the issue one is on, I think the single most relevant aspect of the debate is how the use of race day meds impacts the perception of the public. The position of horsemen is indefensible. The position advocated by the HOAW is admirable and embraceable by the public.
We don’t need to rehash what happened when the trainer of a Kentucky Derby winner revealed on TV that his horse was on steroids. The public clamor following that remark shows what the public thinks about horses that they perceived to be juiced.
Why is public perception important? Try these on for size:
1) The public is required for attendance at racetracks.
2) The public is required for betting on horse races.
3) The public does not like to bet on sporting contests that they perceive to be contested on a playing field that is not level.
4) The public likes animals and the public especially likes horses. They don’t like horses being drugged just so that a contest can be held.
5) The public reads newspapers and watches TV and owners of the media provides content to the public that they want to see.
6) The public votes for politicians.
7) Politicians oversee racing on behalf of the public.
8) Politicians are responsible for the welfare of the animals.
9) Politicians are charged with regulating and protecting the public in games of chance.
Trainers and owners are facing off in a monumental battle over the use of race day meds and the entire health of our sport hangs in the balance. Don’t think it doesn’t.
The organizations that represent trainers want drugs. The organizations that represent owners do not.
Proponents of race day meds cannot win because they are on the wrong side of the issue. They want the public to continue to play along with them and allow them to treat racehorses with medication.
If 100 percent of our racehorses require Lasix in order for racing to be conducted, I suggest to you that we don’t have a viable sport and this is exactly the way the public sees it. In the public eye, racing has cooties because we drug our horses.
The owners cannot lose, because they are on the right side of the issue, as their position mirrors what the public wants. The public is the customer and the last time I checked, it said that the customer is always right.
This same realization must be understood and internalized by the people that run the New York Racing Association, as well as the tracks in Kentucky and California, where the bulk of graded races for 2-year-olds are contested. They need to support their fan base and their future fan base by supporting the owners.
Racing regulators must do their duty and take steps to protect its constituents and the animals by doing whatever it takes to establish and enforce rules that will cease the use of race day meds for the 2-year-olds in graded races, as a sign that they are following their mandate with the public.
Let’s say, for the sake of compromise, that the trainers and vets are absolutely correct on the issue of using Lasix. Even if they are, is it worth risking the loss of our entire sport because 6 out of 100 horses might bleed through the nose?
This sport cannot let the tail wag the dog any longer. We need to kick the drug habit. We have totally abused drugs on race day with our horses for far too long.
Can you imagine a physician treating human athletes by prescribing drugs for every one of its patients based on the chance that they might need it someday?
In conclusion, I humbly suggest to TOBA that they present the following trade off to trainers: you can keep treating your horses with meds on race day and drive this game into an abyss, or you can change your position and help revitalize the game. Horsemen should realize that a game without drugs is preferable to no game at all.
Our game is shriveling before our very eyes and dramatic action from a public relations standpoint must be undertaken to reverse the trend and get the public on our side.
It behooves trainers to embrace the welfare of their animals and thereby win the battle of public perception. It is time for trainers to allow the public to admire them and their vast skills. Then the public will once again focus on and appreciate the beauty and majesty of our great sport.