It has become unfashionable to talk about the integrity of the Thoroughbred breed, but the breed is the bedrock of the Thoroughbred industry. Anyone leaving Lexington by plane walks across an enormous chart almost literally etched in stone which details the carefully preserved lineage of Thoroughbred stallions dating back nearly 300 years. Those 300 years have seen constant refinement of the breed by careful selection, evolving from match races run in four-mile heats to the extraordinary combination of stamina and speed that makes the modern racehorse.
Anyone breeding a horse has the potential to change the breed and most people who breed horses, be they commercial or not, dream of being credited as the breeder of a Zenyatta or a Frankel. Aristocrats and billionaires have bred great horses, but so have small breeders with limited resources and an unshakeable belief in their own methods.
The considerations in breeding a horse are myriad, among them: How far will he stay? Will he mature early? Will she be sound? And above all, will he be fast enough? The test of all the theories and experiments lies only on the racetrack. The best looking horse isn't necessarily the winner, the most expensive horse isn't necessarily the winner, but the winner on the track should be the best horse. Unfortunately, the test has become corrupted in the United States and the corruption is that of widespread drug use.
Scientific study1 indicates that severe bleeding is a heritable trait, confirming what breeders had concluded at least a century ago2. By allowing horses to run on Lasix, this infirmity is largely hidden. To make matters worse, Lasix seems to be a performance enhancer, so that in order for a horse that doesn't have the infirmity (severe bleeding) to be competitive with the horse that does have the infirmity, the horse that doesn't have the infirmity has to receive the drug the infirm horse receives. Therefore virtually all horses run on Lasix and no one knows which are severe bleeders and which aren't. This Kafkaesque situation can only serve to perpetuate severe bleeders in the North American Thoroughbred population.
It would be wrong, however, to focus solely on Lasix. A number of drugs can be present in a horse's system on race day, which is unacceptable in other parts of the world and distorts our perception of the soundness and physical abilities of racehorses. Among them are the anti-inflammatory drugs Bute and Banamine and the bronchodilator Clenbuterol. Clenbuterol is particularly insidious since it, if administered on a regular basis and in large doses, has a steroidal effect that potentially circumvents the various bans on steroids enacted over the last few years. It should go without saying that we must also take steps to ensure that the “designer” drugs, which have destroyed the credibility of other sports, do not do the same to ours.
It is futile to argue about which drugs are “good” drugs and which drugs are “bad” drugs. We should be focused on having no drugs present in a horse's system on race day. It is the only way to ensure the integrity of our racing and of our breed. Nobody should suggest that therapeutic drugs do not have a legitimate place in the training of a racehorse, but if a horse is not capable of racing without drugs in its system it shouldn't be running at all.
The pessimists say we have already ruined the breed. I don't agree – the North American Thoroughbred is too resilient to be destroyed in a couple of decades. Resilience, however, is not invincibility. We must end racing's 30-year plus drug experiment before the pessimists are proven right.
Tomorrow: Counterpoint by trainer Dale Romans
Lincoln Collins, an international Thoroughbred consultant, is president of Kern Thoroughbreds.
1.) South African Journal of Animal Science 2004
“A genetic analysis of epistaxis as associated with EIPH in the Southern African Thoroughbred “
H. Weideman, S.J. Schoeman and G.F. Jordaan
2.) Bloodstock Breeders' Review 1913
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