A big bad spotlight on U.S. racing

I have had my differences over the years with the New York Times, my former employer via the International Herald Tribune, but there are some things they still do well. While the old gray lady seems to prefer to spend money on lavish executive bonuses rather than gathering and reporting the news, they still have a reserve for funding investigative reporting, and they recently threw a packet at a series looking at the U.S. racing industry. The first installment (of how many, I’m not sure) was released over the weekend, and it has caused quite a stir. I’m only worried it isn’t causing enough of one. There were about 100 comments on the Times’ web site in the first hours after publication, and there are about 480 now. The pace has slowed dramatically in the past few days.

My friends at the Paulick Report are following it pretty closely, and there is a good debate going on over there, but one would expect that since the site is a gathering place for people either connected to the industry or dedicated fans and gamblers (a dying breed, to be sure).

The first article was pretty sensational, but it had to be to get the point across: Fatal accidents are rife in American racing, much moreso than elsewhere in the racing world, and the major difference between the United States and the rest of the world is the allowance of various medications to be in a horse’s system on race day. I have been crusading against race-day medication in America pretty much since I learned about racing as a journalist and certainly since I became a trainer. I remember very well a few long conversations with Joe Drape on the subject when we met up at the Dubai World Cup in 2007. He had never really thought much about the prevalence of Lasix use or the fact that most other jurisdictions banned such drugs. I expounded that I didn’t think it was right that most horses racing in America had two or three injections for breakfast on race day. That planted the seed.

A few high-profile accidents (Eight Belles or Barbaro, anyone?) and one Big Brown later, and people started to wake up to the difference. When the unfortunate Barbaro was put down, I was asked to write a European perspective for the Times, which I did. At the time, I didn’t feel I could hit the subject as hard as Joe and his team have now done, but if you read my story, all of the same issues are raised. And therein lies the problem. There has been endless talk of the problems plaguing U.S. racing and plenty of pledges to do better. But nothing has changed.

I applaud the new Times series, and I hope – yet again – that something can change. But given the track record of those in charge of the sport, I’m not optimistic. Still, I add my voice, yet again, to those who know that racing CAN truly be the sport of kings, with thoroughbreds from age-old bloodlines competing on their merits, rather than on those of their veterinarian.

3 Replies to “A big bad spotlight on U.S. racing”

  1. I have just been reading the New York Times article- it shows to a certain extent, cruelty in some sectors of the sport has no limits.
    So called performance enhancing Drugs in any sport, is plain cheating and nothing else. To be fair, a number of comments showed some smaller trainers never use these drugs and have genuine love for their horses.
    But if I were part of the American racing establishment, I would be deeply embarrassed by such an exposure.
    At the moment various States seem far more concerned with finding ways of increasing falling revenue through on-track casinos and the supposed answer to all their prayers- possible Exchange Betting through Betfair shortly in California and other States. This merely shows when you are desperate, parasites like Betfair arrive to take you to the cleaners.

    For a lot of people who regularly bet on horses, it’s not to make a profit – their sole interest being simply that each day they have a race card full of horses at any level of ability- allowing them something to bet on. Some would sadly be more concerned if racing was cancelled through a strike for several days, than a horse being killed on the race track.
    I remember some time ago, speaking to a man on a racetrack after a horse was tragically put down – pointing out how sad it was. He coldly replied; “Now it can be eaten as horse meat”.

  2. A flaw withthe story is it concentreted on in New Mexico and the majority of the horses were quarter horses..
    I donot run on bute o rlasix but my major concern is the injecting the joints, seems that all the big boys do it to make the horse “better”. the times does not say this untilvery late in the article that it New Mexico..I breed to race and had a horse claimed off me in so cal and they six packed him 2 days aafter the claim-HE WAS SOUND.. six packing is both ankles knees and hocks..

  3. I am of two minds about the article.

    As a biologist who used genetics in my research I know Lasix promotes the spread of the hereditary tendency to bleed and also probably weakens horses by dehydrating them and leaching minerals (including calcium) from their blood before they race. The defense of Lasix/Salix as “therapeutic” is a triumph of short term thinking. Don’t get me started on clenbuterol and its effects. Charles commented on injecting steroid into joints. They do it to people, too. It works well against pain but speeds deterioration of the joint – not something to do, just in case, to a horse that is sound or to mask joint problems before a hard race. Short term thinking replaced the Iron Horse with the Chemical Horse. It was discouraging that TOBA backed down on banning Lasix for juveniles in graded races. A new generation could have raced drug free at the highest level without impacting current runners. Today ALL horses are drugged, whether they need it or not.

    Still, Andy Beyer was right that it’s dishonest to combine Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing data. The emotive descriptions of maimed horses and maimed jockeys in New Mexico created public outrage about Thoroughbred racing. The image of the dead body of a horse lying in the dirt, next to some junk was horrid. The article achieved great pathos by saying it was close to the auction ring where he was bought. But the horse carried his owner’s colors and the trainer wanted it to win and they invested time and money to that end. The tragedy is the means used, not where the body awaited disposal. Drugs helped the horse race better until he broke down was euthanized on the track. His horrible/wonderful life ended quickly. Joe Drape loves racing and wants to clean it up. I wonder about his means: public indignation is very powerful but there are unintended consequences. The article was a huge gift to the governor of NY, who wants to replace Aqueduct with a Convention Center, and build casinos that don’t contribute to racing. The article was a huge gift to other state governments trying to divert casino money going to the “disreputable” (NT Times editorial) sport of racing. Dear voters: we cannot fund animal cruelty! Save the horses! Nor will the anti-racing drive stop if fatalities are cut drastically because racing is an extreme sport for horses and jockeys.

    All we need is for the owners and trainers and vets, who are accustomed to therapeutic drugs on race day, to back off and let juveniles race drug free. Maybe another article work toward that.

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