This is the second in a three-part series examining differences in medication policy and use in Great Britain versus the United States. See Part 1 here.
When medication reform is discussed in the United States, horsemen's advocates often resist tighter restrictions on therapeutic medications, citing the need to treat horses for the myriad aches and chronic conditions that come with the demands of an athletic career.
In Great Britain, trainers say policies have been consistently strict for years. Most of the time, the trainers we surveyed do not seem to feel the long withdrawal times on therapeutic drugs have inhibited their ability to do their job.
“I really don't feel we have any difficulties with the medication rules in the UK,” said top conditioner Mark Johnston. Based in North Yorkshire, Johnston became the first trainer to saddle 200 winners in a season in 2009 and has repeated the feat in six seasons since. His horses have started more than 1,350 times so far this year with a 16 percent win rate, according to the Racing Post.
Dr. John Martin, one of the private veterinarians working for Johnston, believes his employer uses significantly less therapeutic medication than other trainers in Britain, and it doesn't seem to have made Johnston less competitive.
“I would disagree that you need to be using [lots of therapeutics] or if not, you're losing a competitive edge,” said Martin. “Year in and year out, I think he's trained nearly 4,000 winners, which is roughly 200 winners per year. I think those numbers speak for themselves. I think the focus here is on basic husbandry as opposed to medication. He's very focused on getting their feed right, keeping them warm, getting their beds right, the basic things, rather than try and complicate it with this idea you need to be using medication.”
Johnston emphasized, however, that although he uses very little medication ahead of a race, he's not against medicating horses in principle. If raceday restrictions were different, he would lean more heavily on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories drugs (NSAID) — but not as a defense against pain.
“I don't think the U.S. does itself any favors with its medication policy, but I'm not anti-drugs to the extent that I would go out on a limb and not use them if they were available. I'm more concerned with a level playing field, and everybody playing under the same rules,” said Johnston. “To be blunt about it, you can get more runners [with non-steroidals], but you are taking more risks. I think you are going to have more catastrophic accidents. We have very, very few catastrophic accidents on the racecourse because we pick a lot of problems up at home before we go racing. If you are using anti-inflammatories, you will actually protect the horse on many occasions, especially against soft tissue injuries. It's the swelling that does the damage. So there are some prophylactic reasons for using Bute (phenylbutazone, an NSAID), but you're also going to mask some low grade lamenesses that might be an indication of a condylar fracture or something coming.”
Newmarket-based trainer Roger Varian said there are a lot of individual differences between horses' needs for therapeutics.
“Some horses could train their whole lives and not need any medication at all,” he said. “Other horses need the aid of medication, which I don't think is wrong, but it's like giving them every chance to perform to the best of their ability, as long as we're talking about legal medications. I think there's very much a place for medication in the game, as long as it's regulated and controlled.”
The recurring word when you ask Brits about their medication policies is “sensible.” While Americans seem to believe the lines between appropriate therapeutic treatment, inappropriate therapeutic treatment, and cheating might be blurred in the eyes of the public, the horsemen we spoke to had no difficulty making the distinction. Horses will heal from minor cuts and scrapes without Bute if they're headed to a race; if they're not racing, they can have an anti-inflammatory. If their problem is more serious than that, it's time to rethink the racing calendar.
The Lasix debate
There is one drug Johnston doesn't touch when he sends runners to North America: furosemide, better known as Lasix, the diuretic used to treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, or bleeding.
“I heard from one very experienced veterinarian who said that running without Lasix is like running with your hands tied behind your back. I can't agree with that,” said Johnston. “One day in particular that stands out to me was when we took Jukebox Jury to the Canadian International [in 2009]. On an eight- or ten-race card there were only two horses on the whole card that were not running on Lasix. One was ours and the other was Mick Channon's filly who was in the E.P. Taylor [Lahaleeb (IRE)]. We came second and he won.
“Personally I've no desire to run on Lasix. I think certainly for horses that have not been on it previously, to chuck them onto Lasix and dehydrate them prior to the race, it's not a good idea.”
(Actually, there were 10 horses in total on the 11-race card starting without furosemide,)
If a horse does bleed in a race, Johnston believes it may be a sign of a lung infection, and he gives the horse a short cycle of antibiotics.
Jeremy Brummitt, bloodstock advisor and prominent pinhooker in the British markets, said he is aware some trainers giving horses Lasix to minimize bleeding during workouts, but horses training on that regimen will need longer to prepare for races as they wait for the medication to clear their system. He estimates most horses probably need three weeks between last administration and raceday. Horses with this classic pattern might only appear three or four times in a racing season. Those with chronic problems are often sold to other countries.
Diagnostics versus prophylactics
Veterinarians and horsemen agree the majority of vet bills seem to go toward diagnostics in Britain, rather than medication. Diagnostics are tests designed to identify the source of a horse's symptoms, while prophylactics (which include both drugs and therapies) are designed to prevent medical problems before they happen.
“It's only mild exaggeration to say (U.S. racing is) very interested in cure and we're very interested in prevention. It's not quite that black and white,” said Brummitt. “Just because you diagnose a problem doesn't mean to say you should necessarily go for the most heavy-handed resolution of it.”
But Brummitt isn't sure lots of diagnostics mean more efficient treatment every time – information is only as powerful as the person holding it.
“It doesn't necessarily follow that because I know what's wrong with the horse and you've no idea what's wrong with the horse, your management through ignorance isn't going to be better for it in the long run than my regime with the aid of insight,” he said. “It's all about the knowledge you've got. Impatient people invariably make a mistake, and impatient people are generally the most likely to get the information.”
Are British runners inherently more sound?
The obvious conclusion might be that British horses simply don't encounter the same medical issues as American runners. Trainer George Margarson, a fixture around the gallops at Newmarket, believes British horses are no sounder than American runners.
“I would say the Americans tend to break more down than we do because of the way they train. They have to train them harder for the dirt,” said Margarson. “I think more dirt horses break down than turf horses, simple as that, because they're going quicker. Our lads are more controlled and more settled on a regular basis of steady work. You can't argue that a lot of top American horses can carry on a good career until they're four and five, so the argument is, is it just the weak ones that break?”
But fellow trainer Varian said he suspects British and American trainers face similar challenges in terms of chronic injury rates. He's also not convinced that British horses, as a whole, run more frequently or for more years than American Thoroughbreds.
“I think there's a big challenge in what we do, getting longevity out of these animals,” he said. “I think it's down to the individual horse, but it's a very delicate breed. Every trainer all around the world, whatever surface or facility or style of training you're adapting to, I don't think there's anyone who has less injuries. I think there's just different injuries.”
Margarson said in his barn, one issue with a horse's longevity is his ability to earn prize money. The majority of the horses in his yard are 2- and 3-year-olds because he says the limited amount of spots for older horses to run are competitive and not lucrative. He also echoes many Americans in a belief that the modern Thoroughbred has lost its durability.
“I think we are breeding horses now that aren't as strong as they were. We're inter-breeding a lot and that's one of the big things,” he said. “In the 1930s and 1940s when there were less problems, they started breaking them as [weanlings]. As yearlings, we used to gallop them. In the 1700s there used to be yearling races. There was a yearling race here [in Newmarket] in November. The last one was 1780 or something like that, and the filly that won the yearling race went on to win the Guineas.
“We always used to gallop our yearlings at Christmas. We'd call it the Christmas Gallop. We figured out the one that was the best then was usually the best. We never used to gallop after that till February or March. I've found that horses that were in training and never stopped were the sounder horses than the ones who stopped and went back to training.”
The one thing horsemen in the United Kingdom agree upon: American withdrawal times give the British the impression U.S. horses are racing with medication actively on board.
“It's all about perception, and I think you can race on certain drugs we can't race on, but you can also get drugs 24 hours out, 48 hours out, that we may not be able to give eight days out,” said Varian. “So I wouldn't go as far as to say American racing is full of drugs, but I think the very simple fact is you can use more drugs on or closer to race day than many other racing jurisdictions.”
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