McCarron: ‘Drugs Don’t Kill Horses, People Kill Horses’

by | 09.26.2016 | 12:38am
Chris McCarron on Alysheba moments after capturing the Kentucky Derby

Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron was feted Sunday night at Keeneland as the honor guest of the Thoroughbred Club of America, and used the opportunity to encourage fellow club members to reform the racing industry.

During his acceptance speech, McCarron revealed that his decision to retire from riding in 2002 was two-fold: part of it was a loss of heart and a fear of incurring more injuries, and the other part was his worries about the direction the sport was heading. An explanation of shockwave therapy was especially impactful on the choice. Fourteen years later, McCarron said he's frustrated that the industry hasn't made the progress he believes it should. He expressed disappointment in the relicensing of trainer Marcus Vitali, a lack of reciprocity of veterinarian's lists, and a slow adoption of the National Uniform Medication Program.

“The RMTC was formed in 2001, and very little progress has been made in spite of all their efforts,” said McCarron. “I know most people in this room don't want to let the federal government get involved, but we don't have any other avenue. Every other avenue has been exhausted, every other effort has been pushed aside.

“To borrow and amend a slogan: ‘Drugs don't kill horses. People kill horses.'”

McCarron referenced a study that appeared in the Journal of American Medical Association in 2000 which stated there are 35 accidents per week involving jockeys, including paddock and gate accidents. An average of two jockeys are killed per year and another two are paralyzed. This year, McCarron noted, the total is already up to three.

“There's a multitude of reasons why this is happening, but the number one reason is discretion: what to do with a horse that's infirm, what to do with a horse that needs rest instead of therapy,” he said. “There's a lot of horses out there running who shouldn't be running, and authorities in this business need to grab hold of those horns and do something about it, and soon. I don't want to see any more of my brethren hitting the deck. It's already dangerous enough riding sound horses in tight fields, and it's already difficult enough.

“I believe that there's enough people in this room with the power to cause some change to happen, and for the good of the horse, for the good of the participants, and for the integrity of the game, something's got to give.”

McCarron also looked back at his storied career, which started with a joking thanks to the various jockeys who gave up mounts McCarron picked up, including Bill Shoemaker, Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, and Victor Espinoza.

“And I want to give a big shoutout ‘You're welcome' to Gary Stevens for making the bonehead decision to take off Silver Charm,” McCarron joked.

McCarron was just the second jockey to be honored in the 85-year history of the TCA testimonial dinner, joining Bill Shoemaker, who was celebrated in 1982.

In his 28 years in the saddle, McCarron won six Triple Crown races, five Breeders' Cup Classics and three other Breeders' Cup races among numerous other Grade and Group stakes. McCarron has previously served as general manager of Santa Anita Park and is the founder and lead instructor of the North American Racing Academy.

  • Gotchagold

    always loved Chris McCarron, always will. Now did anyone listen?

    • Judy Gaddis

      EXACTLY! He is PLEADING with the powers that be to DO SOMETHING before it’s too late for one more horse, one more rider or the sport altogether. I am sure I am not alone here when I say each passing day it becomes more and more difficult to cultivate a friend into following racing or trying to explain why I do.

      And let me just say this — there ARE plenty of “conceited” riders out there but Chris McCarron certainly isn’t one of them. I have never seen him be rude to a fan and, instead, often go out of his way to sign an autograph or shake a hand.

      • longtimehorsewoman

        Well said!!

  • ken

    obviously an outstanding rider but an even better person. K Q

  • J

    Great Rider but Very Conceded.
    Is he still running the Jockey School.
    I just saw the Straight twin @ Gulfstream Park. He graduated from there. He is in a wheelchair.
    God Bless Him.

    • John Fulton

      You, obviously, don’t know Chris.

      • T

        By the Way ( J ! ) Mr. Straight decided to leave the school very early and never officially graduated !

    • Perfect example of why allowing anonymous people to post is a big mistake.

      • Larry Wiseheart

        I agree with you Barry and John.

      • Tinky

        You should name your next horse “Quixotic”.

        Oh, and amusingly, two of your four upvotes (thus far) are from anonymous contributors, underscoring that whether political elections of the Paulick Report, Americans love to vote against their own interests.

      • Romanella

        Nice to hear from you Mr. Irwin and your book was great
        Good luck with Va Bank. He is a very accomplished horse and I will follow his career

      • Jack Frazier

        You are right on Barry. There a people who are afraid to use their real names. Why? I have no idea but it probably stems from the fact that they are cowards and hide behind anonymity because of fear. I use my real name and don’t give a rat’s rear end if people agree or disagree. I gave up on racing in California a long time ago and doubt if I will ever race here again. McCarron is exactly right and that is the reason I retired from training. A good trainer may be able to out train others but you cannot out train the needle. PED’s used because they work and there should be no instance in which a horse can run if juiced up. No one has the balls to do the right thing, but they will form a committee to study it. What a laugh.

        • Michael Castellano

          So the trainers with the highest win percentages are most likely the ones doing the most juicing. Even if that’s not always true, the more experienced betting public assumes as much. It reminds me of the trotters back in the 1960s when all sorts of stuff was going on. Don’t follow them today, but I’d be surprised if the same stuff is not going on there.

          • Jack Frazier

            Not necessarily but they are the ones the vets spend the day with, in their barns.

          • Guest

            How do you know? Are you following them around and keeping track? No, you are perpetuating the appearance that you need to drug horses to keep winning. What, by gosh, if the trainer was discussing the care and management of the horses in his barn with the vet??? Isn’t that what is supposed to happen? No, you assume that the vet is in the barn a long time because nefarious things are happening.

          • Jack Frazier

            Well, in a word, yes. Certain trainers have the vets in their barns from the time it opens until it closes every day of the week. There is a difference between caring and using every thing possible to enhance performance. Most of the time the trainer wasn’t there and it was the assistants or the grooms who were conversing with the vets. I assume nothing. Having talked to one of these assistants and hearing a HOF trainer ask how much was spent on each horse every month for vet work, I was astounded to hear the average was about $1,500 per month per horse. Now if that sounds like care and management to you, oh well but if a horse needs that much spent on it a month, it should not be racing. Do you think that is a fair amount to spend on a horse for a month’s worth of vet work?

          • Ha ha ha ha ha…

      • ean

        J is for joker.he got the wrong Chris.

      • Guest

        Why? He “conceded.”

    • Lydia

      Yeah, those ‘conceded’ folks are tough to deal with. Are you blaming Chris for Matthew Straight’s injuries? J, have you ever met Chris or just another armchair jockey? At least you had the good sense to recognize Chris as a “great rider”; he obviously would like to see some ‘positive’ changes made to horse racing.

    • Jennifer Kelly

      Do you mean ‘conceited?’ To concede is to surrender or yield. Conceited means that one is vain or proud of oneself. By using the wrong word, you have undermined your point.

      • G. Rarick

        Actually, I think he made his point very clear – that he shouldn’t be taken seriously.

        • Jennifer Kelly

          Haha. Touche!

    • nicehorsey

      Go away

  • Diana Baker

    Bravo Chris!

  • G. Rarick

    Bravo, Chris McCarron. If only more in American racing had the balls to speak out as loud, clear and direct as you have.

    • ben


  • Michael Castellano

    Some folks may deny it, but the profit motive rules in this country, including in racing. Decisions are made primarily in that pursuit. The horses are considered property, and the riders are sometimes well paid, but are considered both replaceable and expendable just as the horse is. Every attempt at reform must tackle this issue, to various degrees. Prices for race horses are so inflated, there is tremendous pressure to race them, whether sound or not. Trainers are up against the bigger stables, and the smaller ones can barely eke out a living. And unless a horse has value in the breeding shed, there is little incentive to care for them after their racing days are over. Hard to imagine competing racing officials will ever embrace government regulation.

  • gus stewart

    Met chris back in the 80s rode our first winner. Always a staight guy and a major passion for sport. I thought the most important opinion he stated was getting the fed involved, is the last thing we want to do, but we have exhausted all other avenues. Then goes on to say there are people here who could fix this before its to late. He is right, so take a look at los alamitos attendace yesterday. Take a look at declines of business every year across the country. You current payrolled leaders are not goung to fix it because thier jobs are going to be in jeopardy, so owners who have an invested interest better start to act very soon in changing the direction of this sport. Race track owners all would be better of to sell property for development in current state of this business. Its up to owners to suggest changes not track exeutive management because they wont as long a they keep getting their checks

  • RIPGrammar

    As a horseman who advocates for less drugs and more time off, I totally agree. Something does need to happen. I’m tired of seeing horses out on post parade who are lame. They should never make it that far! It needs to be caught and shut down in the barn. If a trainer keeps sending horses over in the afternoons who get vet scratched at that late date, they should be getting days. Enough is enough.

    • aspromised

      Only the lucky ones get vet-scratched on PP. Most don’t.

  • Carolyn Bauche

    Totally agree with EVERYTHING this outstanding man had to say !

  • nicehorsey

    Hear ye. Hear ye. Pay attention to one who knows this business from the hoof to Executive Suite.

  • Duke

    OFD (originally from Dorchester)

  • Real fan

    Very true! The whole game is disgusting. Watching these giant stables churn through multitudes of horses that most fans never even know about and somehow their owners find these as “acceptable” losses to obtain those few stars is sickening. It’s all about the “program!”

    • Mary (M.R.) Perdue

      Right now I’m reading Steve Crist’s “Betting on Myself” published in 2003. It’s a great read and an overview of Steve’s fascinating career from his first job at the New York Times through his stints at NYRA and the DRF. In the memoir he recalls early attempts to get to know industry insiders: “These horsemen….truly loved a ‘good’ horse…and were almost religiously respectful of those runners who had proved their quality. Yet they were utterly without sentiment for the majority of the breed. I listened in horror one night as an elderly trainer wistfully recalled a bygone era when he would go to a Kentucky farm each year to inspect his owner’s new crop of 2-year-olds.
      ‘You put the good ones on a van to New York and you put the others out back in a ditch and shot them,’ he recalled. There seemed to be general agreement that those were indeed the good old days.”
      What has really changed? Champions are revered, but many horses are treated little better than cattle. The difference is that instead of this treatment being dished out by a few elite families , it’s now spread out over more perpetrators and more tracks than ever. Also,technology has made PEDs more available, more sophisticated and harder to detect. So more horses get doped up and run into the ground, endangering the lives of jockeys and the horses running against them.
      I’m basically conservative and don’t favor government intervention as a general rule. But we need a national commissioner or governing body and random out of competition testing, just like every other sport. Until that happens, the “acceptable loss” attitude you cite which has pervaded the sport for decades will continue to produce the results McCarron so accurately describes.
      IMO the single best change since Crist’s book was published is the growth of aftercare, which basically didn’t exist in 2003. We are doing some things right!

      • longtimehorsewoman

        You are so right.

  • HorsePower Racing

    Class Act. Thank you for your efforts and honesty in trying to how solve an industry in crisis

  • jojo

    The writing is on the wall.

  • ean

    I am always puzzeled that a nation that put a man on the moon,cannot have even a near uniform drug policy.A trainer cannot have 26 violations and still have a license or even be allowed in the stable area even as a guest.

  • JerseyGirl

    This is one man who knows of what he speaks. Thank you Chris.


    Thank you Chris for standing up for the horse and rider. A lot of people don’t understand as horseman we are making decision that effect people and horses lives. I would like to see all vet records made public. Right now it is easy four some owners who are getting $2,000.00 vet bills to hear no evil see no evil. If made public what is happing to there horse they might be ashamed and ask more questions. As for trainers it would show who injects and goes on and who gives horses time. There a number of very caring owners and trainers out there and a number who treat there horses like lab rats,lets pull back the sheets and see who’s who. This would also help in deciding how to care for a horse that you just bought or claimed. If you knew the history on them you could make informed decisions on how best to care for them.
    Also does not the public have a right to know if a horse has had a procedure between races that could effect there performance.

  • Lehane

    Thank you Chris McCarron for your integrity and straight shooting.

  • Elizabeth Collard

    I am totally in favor of a uniform medication program and reciprocity . However I wouldn’t welcome federal involvement. I’m not sure what the answer is , on a track level I think the stewards and racing officials need to worry more about things other than filling races . Recently I saw a filly had raced 3 times in a week , total abuse in my opinion .

  • james andrews

    Well said Chris . You always have a good sense of what will make our industry safe and good again .

  • Larry Sterne

    BRAVO.. Now if the owners can get their equine brain surgery reversed and demand excellence from the governing bodies and trainers it may not be too late to save an industry from shame and e;xtinction.

  • Bev

    This was a great article! I think it made too much sense for the “right people who could HELP the racing industry” for them to understand. I also feel there ARE too many horses out there that are getting pushed too hard to achieve something they can’t. Not yet. And many running races who shouldn’t BE in a race. Should be having some turn out R&R time. A couple weeks turn out does wonders. You have to realize…….those are HORSES. They do need to have “horse breaks” more often than they get. Turn them out after their morning work outs even. Whats the harm? More harm mentally and physically letting them stand all day and overnight in a stall just hanging their heads out to watch the goings on. Horses are too smart for that. They’re not “dumb horses” anymore. Not TB’s anyway.

  • John G. Veitch

    I have been involved with this sport as an owner for over 10 years, and as a fan for nearly 40. In virtually all of the people in the business I have encountered, from farm owners, veterinarians, Trainers, breeders, owners, exercise riders, hot walkers and grooms, the care and concern of the horse is the number one priority. Are there a few, and I wish to emphasize few, bad apples, the answer is yes.
    And sorry, but I disagree about the RMTC making little progress.
    Did it ever occur to Chris that the condition of the track actually plays a part in breakdowns? Not on purpose mind you, but changes in climate, equipment, Etc. that can cause a track to be unsafe?
    I understand this is a dangerous profession for the Jockey’s and I feel awful when one is hurt, and of course for the horse too. But the vast majority of people involved work constantly to make sure the game is safe and on the level for all involved..

    • If you were an owner for 40 years instead of 10 you would have a greater understanding of what Chris was talking about. He was in the trenches, you were not. I was there when he contemplated retirement and I know the reasons and I wholeheartedly understand and agree with his reasons. When you work a horse and know that this animal is sore or lame and should not be in training, let alone racing, and it is treated with shock therapy to get past the vet on the morning of a race and into the starting gate, and that horse breaks down right in front of your horse and you see a fellow rider go sailing over it and land with a crash on the ground, it tends to take the heart out of a rider. The question of whether there are a few bad apples vs. whether the entire industry has a problem is an interesting one. I agree about the bad apples being in the small minority of horsemen when it comes to cheating with designer drugs, but I have to disagree with you on the use of procedures and painkilling drugs that mask soreness and lameness, as these seems to be infinitely more widespread and is the subject of a longstanding debate. When horsemen fought tooth and nail about lessening the amount of Bute that was able to be used by horsemen to a degree that would not totally mask pain, it was a very telling situation and a black mark on trainers and the HBPA. What Chris is talking about is whether we want to do the best for humans and horses. What he is saying is that we need to do better. And he is very worried that too few people involved in racing are listening or heeding the warning signs.

      • carate

        Ever take an advil before you play golf?

    • longtimehorsewoman

      You are living in denial. I think Chris is well aware of track conditions, having been a champion jockey. Necropsies have already proven there is no such thing as the “bad step” and that horses who have broken down on the track have pre-exiisting conditions.

    • carate

      Thanks for being an owner for over 10 years an a fan for nearly 40. I appreciate your input.

  • longtimehorsewoman

    It’s so good to hear Chris McCarron state the truth. Drugs don’t kill horses, people kill horses is so true. The industry needs to change, it seems most people agree, and yet it hasn’t changed. There’s lots of talk but there are too many people happy with the status quo and not enough people to stand up and do what’s right. WHOA seems pretty guilty of that, they join, they make a statement, but do they DO anything? I’m 65, I’ve been hearing talk for a long time. will there actually BE change before I die? It’s doesn’t seem likely.

  • Steve

    I happened to be giving Chris a tour of the facility at Fairplex Park in 1999 on the day that J.C. Gonzalez was killed in a racing accident on the far turn. I had a radio and we both heard the paramedics say there was no pulse. He immediately asked to be taken to the jockeys room and stayed for hours consoling the other riders. I believe it was later determined that the horse that broke down had his knee injected the morning of the race and should not have been racing. Chris is a class act and tells it like it is. If the powers don’t listen to a Chris McCarron, there is little hope that the sport will be cleaned up

  • Freedom4Horses

    Absolutely agree! Horse racing needs a complete overhaul and enforcement of better protection for equine athletes. There are far too many injuries and deaths happening on and off the race track right now. Not to mention the thousands of racehorses dumped for slaughter each year. These animals are not to be used up and thrown away, but that’s what is happening in the industry right now and it’s only getting worse. Racetracks, owners, trainers, and breeders need to step up and make the changes necessary to protect these horses.

  • Piquetour

    Proud to have met him when the Thoroughbred Makeover was still held at Pimlico.

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