Thursday, February 11, 2010

Speaking truth to power

One paragraph from a letter to the editor from owner Dan Foster in the February 6 issue of Thoroughbred Times sums up Thoroughbred racing's biggest problem in two succinct, incontrovertible sentences:

"Horses in racing condition do not need medications. Horses that need medications are not in racing condition."

Foster's letter, speaking truth to power, correctly points out that owners have the power to stop the medication nightmare that has engulfed racing over the last 40 years. All they have to do is stop paying for them. You and I both--and I suspect Dan Foster as well--know how likely that is to happen.

Thoroughbred trainers are addicted to medication (for their horses, not for themselves--at least we hope not!), and most of them don't seem to understand how that addiction has changed and degraded their profession. They also do not seem to understand how it changes and degrades their horses. The overwhelming majority of them have no historical perspective on how this all came about.

In the 1970s, medications--primarily Butazolidin and Lasix--were sold (and sold hard) to the racing industry as a way to keep horses racing and increase the number of starts per horse. In the 1970s, average career starts per foal was 23. Today that number is 14. How's that working out for ya?

Number of starts per year has also declined dramatically over the same time frame.

Lasix (now marketed as Salix for some incomprehensible reason) seems particularly detrimental to the frequent racing of horses. Horses administered Lasix routinely lose around 50 pounds of water weight (that's one reason they run faster). It usually takes weeks for them to build back that lost weight and rebalance their systems. That is one of the main reasons, if not THE main reason, that trainers now insist on spacing their horses races at least three weeks, preferably four or five, apart.

Just this week we witnessed another blow to racing when Jess Jackson declined to race Rachel Alexandra against Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom S.(G1), despite Oaklawn's inflation of the purse to a potential $5-million. The stated reason? The earliest trainer Steve Asmussen could envision giving Rachel a prep race was three weeks before the Apple Blossom's date, and that would not be enough time between starts for the 2009 Horse of the Year.

Why not? Everyone in racing knows why not but they don't want to admit it. It's not as if modern trainers have discovered a new, better way to train horses that requires long breaks between races. It's not because modern horses are not as resilient as Thoroughbreds of 40 years ago (or at least not mostly). It's mostly because no Thoroughbred, then or now, could recover that quickly from the damage done to their systems by the drugs they receive.

Despite the fact that everyone knows that Lasix is hard on horses, even when medication reform is discussed everyone assumes that the one drug that not only will but "should" be allowed to continue is Lasix.


How many Triple Crown winners would we have had since Affirmed without medications. Does the two week rest after running on Lasix in the Derby followed by a three week rest after running in the Preakness on Lasix put too great a strain on a horse's system? Is it simply coincidence that racing has not had a Triple Crown winner since 1978?

I'm tired of arguing over whether or not banning race-day medications is realistic. That is not the right question. The right question is what is best for the horse. Draining a horse of fluids so that it cannot race again for the next month simply cannot be the best thing for the horse.

We come back to Dan Foster speaking truth to power.

Horses in racing condition do not need medications. Horses that need medications are not in racing condition.