It’s Kentucky Derby day in the United States. For the past few years, I’ve been contributing a Franco-American (well, American-Franco, really) perspective to The Rail blog at the New York Times, my former employer. Every year, I have the same nostalgic feeling. I grew up glued to the television on Derby Day, watching Jim McKay on ABC’s Wide World of Sports interview trainers, owners and jockeys leading up to the big event. Today, I’m sure I’d probably find the interviews corny and not very enlightening, but back then I was fascinated. I never imagined that one day I’d be a part of the racing world, a half a world away.
But ignorance is bliss, of course, and back then I had no idea of what went into training American race horses – namely needles. Lots of them. And we’re not talking about acupuncture. Everything I know about training horses I learned in France, with some crash courses in England, Hong Kong and Dubai. The more I learned about American racing, the more I was appalled. I have become a voice for eliminating race-day medication in the United States and an advocate of other reforms that might make things better for the American thoroughbred. When Eight Belles came crashing down on two broken ankles after the Derby in 2008, I thought maybe, finally, change might come. After all, we’d already been subjected to the saga of Barbaro. There was a flurry of talk, but no action. But now, finally, it seems action might come. What used to be a closeted minority against the rampant use of drugs has finally become a vocal call for change, and legislators have introduced a bill that would finally close Pandora’s chemical box. The prospect is stirring predictable outrage among the veterinary community, who will see their incomes slashed, and many trainers who might actually have to learn to train rather than medicate. But owners, who might see their monthly bills cut in half and their horses have longer careers, should be popping Champagne. If this passes, I know I will.
Like many anti-medication lobbyists, I have been accused of concentrating on the negatives in the sport. Yes, it’s true that horses snapping legs in front of a worldwide television audience is certainly negative. I’d love to concentrate on the positive. I would love it if Rosie Napravnik would pilot the wonderfully named Pants on Fire to the winner’s circle. I would love to see Master of Hounds be the first European horse to win (even if he is on Lasix – Aidan O’Brien doesn’t have much choice if he wants to compete against all the other drugged horses). I would love to see horses in America getting an average of more than four starts a year. But most of all, I would love to think that when I finally get a horse capable of running in international Group 1 races, I could put the Breeders’ Cup races or the Kentucky Derby on my wish list of races to win. I’ll be rooting for the legislation to pass, so that the United States can join the rest of the world in racing horses, not crowning the most innovative vet.