I believe that for many horsemen, administering performance-enhancing drugs to our horses — if they can get away with it — is based on the sad fact of trying to stay competitive at all cost.
For those of you who have already begun to do a slow burn just reading this — stay with me.
First, there are obvious differences between anabolic steroids and the diuretic furosemide (Lasix). They are different types of drugs designed to address conditions in a horse that are completely unrelated. In addition, anabolic steroids are not permissible, while more than 95% of horses in the U.S. legally run on race-day Lasix.
But I am turning the clock back by just a decade or so, to a time period prior to the banning of anabolic steroids.
Let's take a peek at an article from The New York Timespublished on June 2, 2008, by veteran sportswriter Bill Finley. The piece is called, “Steroids: Still legal, and still used,”and was written in the midst of Big Brown's Triple Crown campaign.
Steroids are legal in 28 of the 38 U.S. states where horse racing is held, including the 3 states holding Triple Crown races, and their use is prevalent. Before banning the drugs in Pennsylvania, racing officials there tested 998 horses and found that 61.7 percent were positive for steroids and 17.3 percent had been treated with two steroids or more.
“They're performance-enhancing,” said the trainer Graham Motion, who said his Belmont starter Icabad Crane was not given steroids. “Isn't that why all the athletes use it? What do they do? They build up a horse's muscle tissue and make the animal stronger. To me that's performance-enhancing. It amazes me that we're still even discussing it. They should have been banned a long time ago.”
Among the nine trainers who are planning to run horses in the Belmont, only Rick Dutrow, the trainer of Big Brown, and Barclay Tagg, who trains Tale of Ekati, said their horses would race on steroids. Dallas Stewart, the trainer of Macho Again, said he had yet to decide whether his horse would receive them. The trainers Todd Pletcher and Nick Zito would not comment on whether their horses would.
Just three days after Mr. Finley's piece, Joe Drape clarified in The New York Timesthe practice of trainer Rick Dutrow in an article called, “Big Brown Free of Steroids, Trainer Says”:
Dutrow said that he usually gave his horses an injection of Winstrol — which is legal in 28 of the 38 states where horse racing is held, including the three states holding Triple Crown races — on the 15th of each month.
So, apparently, in the run-up to the eventual steroid ban, a majority of racehorses in the U.S. were racing on anabolic steroids.
What was the diagnosis? There likely was none. The rationale, however, went something like, “My poor itty-bitty filly has trouble keeping weight on.” A candid response would have been more like, “Well, it's not illegal. Other trainers are using it and I'll be at a disadvantage if I don't.”
Is any of this relevant now?
Sure, it is!
In the next few months
Several state racing commissions will soon consider requests from their tracks to ban Lasix for 2-year-olds beginning next year. Those tracks includethose operated by Churchill Downs Incorporated, the New York Racing Association Inc., and The Stronach Group, as well as Del Mar, Keeneland, Lone Star Park, Remington Park, Los Alamitos Racecourse (Thoroughbred), Oaklawn Park, and Tampa Bay Downs. Some states, including California, may consider a more substantial ban that phases out Lasix completely beginning with foals of 2018.
So, like anabolic steroids, racing commissions will be asked to ban another over-utilized, performance-enhancing drug. The popularity of which is driven by fear of being disadvantaged by racing without it.
I'll share an experience I had while serving as the executive director of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission. In September 2007, we were the first state to consider a model rule of the Association of Racing Commissioners International on the regulation of anabolic steroids. At the commission meeting, every horseman who took to the podium spoke in opposition to the proposed rule. The National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association along with its local chapter and its science expert all attempted to dissuade the commission from moving forward on the ban.
The commission listened politely and intently. Then they unanimously passed the rule.
I have some advice for those commissioners caught in the crosshairs of this Lasix-ban issue. You will likely experience the histrionics of the horsemen claiming that a Lasix ban will cause the sky to fall and the world as we know it to implode. Remember, what happened when your commission banned anabolic steroids?
Horsemen will adapt to the new normal without Lasix. Just like the rest of the racing world.
Just repeat, silently, to yourself — “This, too, shall pass.”
Former Indiana Horse Racing Commission executive director Joe Gorajec is a consultant whose clients include Horse Racing Reform, an industry initiative led by The Jockey Club and Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.
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