Commentary: How U.S. Trainers Can Win Respect

by | 09.03.2015 | 11:26pm

When an American trainer, with some notable exceptions, wins a Triple Crown race, peers, fans and writers invariably shake their heads and question whether the triumph was accomplished on the up and up. This has been going on with increasing frequency for the last several years.

Conversely, when an English or Irish or French trainer wins a Classic in the United Kingdom or Europe, there is not a whisper of impropriety and the only utterances heard are of a celebratory nature.

The reason, plain and simple, that this dichotomy exists is because drugs, both legal and illegal, taint American racing.

Trainers on both sides of the Atlantic work very hard to develop their horsemanship and training skills in order to achieve results that will yield a stable full of prospects with Classic aspirations, all in hopes of one day winning the Kentucky Derby or the Epsom Derby.

When this ultimate achievement is accomplished, trainers understandably anticipate a positive response from peers, fans and turf writers.

Lauding of Classic victories takes place on a regular basis in the UK/Europe, but it is not automatic in the U.S.

A Thoroughbred racehorse trainer has as his major goal in life the respect accorded a successful professional. Yes, I know, I have not forgotten that we live in a capitalistic society. Trainers want to earn money. But, if they are successful, they will earn plenty of money. That is a given. I repeat, however, that respect trumps money for a horse trainer, as it should.

So, why, in the name of everything logical, would racehorse trainers in America trade off a chance for total respect from their family, peers, writers and racing fans just to be able to continue using legal and illegal drugs on their horses?

In embracing a reliance of drugs, American trainers are robbing themselves, their family and the entire sport of horse racing of legitimacy and pride in their life's work. They are being selfish and short sighted. They are doing themselves, their associates and the game itself no favors.

In order to justify their actions, horsemen can continue to take a stance that giving therapeutic drugs to their horses is the humane action to take. And in many instances, both before and after a race, it can be. But not on race day; and not to such an extent that the state of a racehorse has been altered so that it cannot use its own senses to protect its well-being.

Strides have been made and are continuing to be made in various jurisdictions to rein in the use and amount of drugs given to horses on or near race day. But one hard fought victory pretty much sums up the battle in a nutshell.

State vets in certain locales, based on solid evidence, found that reducing the amount of bute in the system of a horse from 5 µg/ml of plasma or serum to 2 µg would allow them to be better analyzed for racing soundness on the morning of a race and lead to fewer catastrophic breakdowns.

Trainers and organizations representing horsemen fought the reduction in the threshold levels tooth and nail before the state vets won this important victory. Horsemen wanted enough bute in the system of the horse to mask its pain. Vets wanted an amount that would allow them to judge the racing soundness of a horse.

Who in their right minds among the racing public and professionals want to embrace a sport in which the reduction of a powerful drug like bute scares so many trainers?

Horses are not football players that have the ability to make a choice whether or not to take a drug that will alter their state on game day. And when a football player makes this decision, he is aware of the dangers.

A horse has no choice and is unaware that his state has been altered, so when he runs down the homestretch and gives everything he has for his connections, he receives no sensory warnings to protect himself as he would if bute was not in his system.

Do we want to have a sporting contest or do we want to sacrifice our athletes like gladiators of old?

When a trainer is standing on the stage at Churchill Downs holding an ear of the trophy after winning the Kentucky Derby, he wants to celebrate in the full knowledge that he has accomplished a credible lifetime achievement. But unless things change, this trainer is never going to get the credit he so richly deserves or so deeply craves.

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