Alliance: Trainers, vets obstruct needed medication changes

by | 01.08.2013 | 5:12pm

The following commentary was submitted by the Water Hay Oats Alliance (WHOA), an organization supporting federal legislation to amend the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 that would prohibit raceday use of medication in racehorses. WHOA's supporters include Arthur and Staci Hancock of Stone Farm; George Strawbridge of Augustin Stable; Roy and Gretchen Jackson of Lael Stable; Dr. Gregory Ferraro, director of the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine's Center for Equine Health; Charlotte C. Weber of Live Oak Stud; Lincoln Collins, president of Kern Thoroughbreds; and Barry Irwin, CEO of Team Valor International.

The future of the American horse industry, particularly the horseracing segment that is by far its largest employer and economic engine, is bleak for precisely the same reason that the nation cannot stem the rising cost of the world's most expensive health care system.  Both are locked in a business pattern where the controlling interests benefit at the expense of the powerless players.  And just like the check writers in the human health care system, the very foundation of the horse business-the owners and breeders-are finding the endeavor increasingly unaffordable and out of their control.  Only the horses are more helpless.

In an effort to stop the sport's slide toward oblivion, industry reformers and other advocates for the horse have waged a vigorous campaign to clean up the industry and the vile and damaging drug culture associated with equine competition. Some progress has been made.  Efforts to curtail the steroids and growth hormones that have proven a pathway to disaster for the North American Thoroughbred have been partially successful. And after years of turning a blind eye, Thoroughbred racing organizations including the Jockey Club, TOBA and the Breeder's Cup have finally stepped up to at least express a willingness to change things. But at this rate, real reform will take years to accomplish.

Under pressure from within their own ranks and from influential media outside, industry representatives have come forward with proposed drug reforms that have been adopted by some states but have been ignored or blocked in others. Unfortunately, these efforts continue to be opposed at every turn by most trainers and track veterinarians, who just like insurance companies and human health care providers, do not believe reform to be in their best economic interests.

The critical issue of race day medication – administering the powerful and ultimately debilitating diuretic furosemide and accompanying painkillers – remains unresolved.  Once again North American racing will go into a new year as the world's only major racing jurisdiction that allows this practice, and the only one with no legal means of banishing for life or even severely punishing the cheating by unscrupulous trainers, veterinarians, and the owners who support them.  Meanwhile, the continued abuse of these wonderful and heroic animals, if not constrained, will most certainly lead to efforts by other groups to curtail racing altogether.

While some state regulating agencies have tightened drug rules and declared war on the cheaters, only Kentucky (which long had the reputation of being soft on drug control) has stepped forward to support decisions by the Breeder's Cup, the Graded Stakes Committee of TOBA, and the recommendation of the Jockey Club to take steps to end race day medications. With no other state following suit, however, Kentucky is likely to back away from its commitment or at least postpone it.

This is par for the course of industry history.  So-called “horsemen's groups” and the veterinarians on which many trainers depend for their knowledge of drugs, are wedded to the status quo.  For the track vets, change could mean the loss of hundreds of millions of revenue generated by their pharmaceuticals, as well as the services necessary to support these racing medications…all of which comes from the owners pockets. It is only the owners who suffer the economic impact of run-away costs and declining racing starts (45 average lifetime starts in 1950 and only 15 average lifetime starts today) for their horses, leaving them to beg for slot machines to subsidize their increased cost and reduced racing purses attendant to the declining number of starts.
And trainers, who bear none of the vet or drug costs, have no incentive to change, and some trainers clearly view the use of drugs as a way of gaining a competitve advantage over drug-free horses.  Many modern trainers have never trained without these drugs. They appear to have no idea that contrary to claims that furosemide is in the horse's best interest, it may well be the one factor most responsible for the bone and joint related injuries that plague the sport and increase the vet bills that are already a burden to owners.   To realize this requires only an elementary education on how repeated doses of this powerful diuretic interrupt bone maturation at precisely the time in a young horse's life when it is trying to build bone strength and density.   

Racetracks, meanwhile, whose growth and profitability is continually threatened by racing's public image as a drug-ridden and inhumane sport, appear to be caught between the obvious need for reform and the opposition of horsemen's groups with whom they are legally bound in partnership.

If, like the trainers, track owners could be handed absolute proof that tragic breakdowns are the result of repeated bone-weakening injections given on their property, they might become more active reformers.  Today, however, both segments are united in the fear that banning race day medications will result in a further decline in the size of fields and an accompanying loss of gambling revenue.

And so, Thoroughbred racing ends the year with more image-shattering reports that horse meat from slaughtered former racehorses is shamefully so replete with a multitide of varied drugs that foreign consumers no longer want to buy it.  A racehorse drugged and slaughtered is a shameful commentary on our once noble Sport of Kings.

There is, however, a way to correct the situation. Though unsettling to some, the answer lies with the uniformity of federal regulation. Languishing in the bowels of the United States Congress is an amendment to the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 (IHIA, The Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act) that will give horseracing the federal authority required to police itself, as other sports do, and give owners and breeders control over how their horses are being treated and how their money is being spent. All the amendment needs is unity among thoroughbred owners and breeders who will step forward and take back the future of an industry once storied in tradition and glory.                 

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