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.


  1. Perfect! I'm tired of arguing too!

    "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."

    Love that - hmm common sense.

  2. And you've just touched upon the two well-known legal meds. Then throw in stuff like EPO, which requires at least 6 weeks off to fully recover, plus other routine meds like clenbuterol, a bronchodialator that is used for training and has steroidal properties and effects, plus steroids such as Winstrol, etc., and it's a real cocktail hour.

  3. Yes Sid, following the KISS method....Banning all meds is the "easy" and obvious solution. But just like universal health care, the more you talk, talk, talk, the more push back you get from the entrenched money interests.

    Tired of talking. Do something.

  4. I agree on the medication debate. I'd rather see them all run with no race-day meds whatsoever.

    It's highly possible, however, that medications aren't the reason we've gone 31 years without a Triple Crown winner. It was 25 years between Citation's Crown in 1948 and Secretariat's in 1973, with fully 15 horses winning two of the three races in years between, but not being able to pull off the Triple. (Tim Tam, Carry Back, Northern Dancer, Kauai King, Forward Pass, Majestic Prince and Canonero II all won the Derby and Preakness but couldn't win the Belmont.) ... Lasix, Bute, Winston, et. al., were not the excuse from 1949 to 1972.

    Since Affirmed's Triple in 1978, we woulda, coulda, shoulda had one in 1979 (which would have been three straight) with Spectacular Bid. Since the Bid, 10 horses have won the first two legs but couldn't complete the Triple. That's about the same rate of success (or failure, if you will) as in the gap between 1948 and 1973.

    The only horse I'd even consider pointing to as having lost the Triple Crown because of his trainer's affinity for meds would be Big Brown, and it was taking him OFF the Winstrol that might have made the difference in his utter failure to fire in the Belmont.

    Meanwhile, seven horses have won two of the three races *including* the Belmont, despite having run in all three races:

    -- Swale won the Derby and Belmont in '84; seventh in the Preakness.
    -- Risen Star the Preakness and Belmont after losing the Derby to filly Winning Colors in 1988.
    -- Hansel, Preakness and Belmont, 1991; 10th in the Derby.
    -- Tabasco Cat, Preakness and Belmont, '94; sixth in a troubled-trip Derby.
    -- Thunder Gulch, Derby and Belmont, '95; third in the Preakness to stablemate Timber Country.
    -- Point Given, Preakness and Belmont, 2001; fifth in the Derby.
    -- Afleet Alex, Preakness and Belmont, '05; a close third in the Derby with a good effort that flattened out at the end.

    Additionally, Victory Gallop was second to Real Quiet in both the Derby and Preakness, and finally edged him out of the Triple Crown by winning a thrilling Belmont.

    So quite a few horses have managed to start all three races and a number have given credible performances in each, sometimes with a good excuse (other than meds) for why they didn't fare better.

    Still, I'm making no argument FOR the medications. I think the game and the breed would be far better off without them.

    I just think the lack of Triple Crown winner in going-on 32 years is not particularly a piece of evidence illustrating the problem.

  5. The other line of least resistance is for the JC to emend its bylaws (just like those in Germany) to force owners to avoid medications if they want to retire the horse to stud.

  6. I can argue that one either way Glenn. I'm quite aware of the records on both sides of the 70s. The Triple Crown has always been a grind in any era, but it is instructive to look a bit closer at the records of some of the horses that ran in all the TC races in the Citation--Secretariat interregnum. Just two examples among many possible ones will, I think, suffice to illustrate the difference between the medication era and the 50s-60s.

    In 1953, the supposedly unsound Native Dancer ran second in the Derby on May 2, won the Withers on May 16, won the Preakness on May 23, won the Belmont on June 13.

    In 1966 Arts and Letters finished second to Majestic Prince in the Derby and Preakness (a race he should have won), then won the Metropolitan Handicap on the Monday before beating Majestic Prince (who was unsound and should not have run) in the Belmont.

    That kind of schedule was quite common among Triple Crown horses of that era....Since medication began, you simply do not see horses do that.

  7. Bravo, John, could not agree more!

    The idea that these drugs and the drugs they mask are not having any effect on the breed is ridiculous. One has only to look to Australia to see horses, stayers yet, regularly running back on a few days' rest to see that something is terribly wrong in this country. It is time one governing body or another, or even the tracks themselves, took the sensible step to ban all race-day meds. Cannot come soon enough, in my opinion, for the safety of both the equine athlete and the human athlete aboard.

  8. Rob Whiteley said ...

    Another important post and a great quote from Dan Foster.

    I would love to see an in-your-face John Sparkman feature article in one of the trainer mags with the following words:

    " ... 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."

    Meanwhile, keep on keeping on, John !

  9. You know there are trainers who do want to run against the status quo of medicating to run, or simply because the other guy is I will too. Why couldn't some of these racing secretaries write races that the condition would be Drug Free..... hmmmmm just a thought, I've seen a lot worse conditions than this that would actually benefit the horse!

  10. I'm with you all the way, John. Most businesses have to respond to the demands of the customer or face financial ruin. Formal surveys that I have read and informal ones that I have conducted tell me people want horses to race more often (soundness), longer races (stamina) and more consistency in form (no medication). And they seem to be speaking pretty loudly and clearly by spending their betting dollars elsewhere.

  11. I linked this to the pedigree query message board where the reaction was supportive of your position except for one poster who wrote:

    "Has John Sparkman ever run a training barn, do set lists, run hands down legs, take horses to the clinic, send horses into the track? I really want to hear from one of those guys that we sould only train on hay, oats and water (as though that were ever the case)."

    I think this the common backs up reaction. How would you answer it?

  12. Basic answer to that, Allison, would be "how do you know it won't work if you've never tried it?"

    And, by the way, no, never worked at the racetrack, but did manage a substantial, successful racing stable with several trainers for many years and, yes, I know how racing barns work, and I know why. Also not so naive as to believe that it was EVER hay, oats and water. I've probably been around racehorses and training barns far longer than the commenter and know far more of the actual history.

    The biggest problem with training insiders is inertia. No one can do it alone, and no one should be expected to do so. That is never what I would advocate. A single barn going hay, oats and water against the chemistry shops their competitors run would be suicide, and they all know it.

    That simple fact is telling enough, and brings me right back to Dan Foster's point. "Horses in racing condition do not need medications. Horses that need medications are not in racing condition."

    The sooner state racing commissions and organizations like the Breeders' Cup and NTRA act on that simple fact, the sooner racing--and the public's perception of it--will improve.

  13. John:

    Why reserve all the blame and scorn for trainers and veterinarians when breeders and owners are just as complicit in the debacle?

    Fifteen years ago you sounded the warning bell on the declining soundness of the American Thoroughbred. Your comprehensive study viewed the subject from an historical perspective and then backed it up with statistical evidence which identified unsoundness in pivotal stallions.

    You concluded that Native Dancer was a major souce of unsoundness through Northern Dancer and Raise A Native. In particular you warned that the popular cross of Northern Dancer/Mr. Prospector constituted a "double whammy" of potential unsoundness.

    Unfortunately your advice has gone largely unheeded and breeders and owner have continued to provide trainers with "double whammy" tupe horses.

    Fiftenn years ago your study pointed out that "As an increasing number of racing dates ratched up the pressure on trainers and horses, veterinarians tried valiently to help. Technology developed new drugs that kept horses training and racing."

    Today that could just as easily read, "As an increasing number of unsound horses ratched up the pressure on trainers, veterinarians tried valiantly to help. Technology developed new drugs that kept horses training and racing."

    You note that "Foster's letter, speaking truth to power, correctly points 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 top paying for them."

    They could also stop breeding and buying unsound horses that need them.

  14. I couldn't agree more. The point also needs to be made about horses being kept on the go by having their joints injected. If joints are puffy and sore it's because that particular animal is not standing up the training regime and there's one simple solution: rest. It is the only thing that is best for the horse. Any vet with a conscience should be recommending that course of action to a trainer/owner. Vets are there to heal the sick and the lame, not to assist in potentially breaking a horse down for good.
    As someone who lives in a small racing stable I know only too well the frustration of setbacks to horses who were almost ready to run but asking them to go on when their physical complaints are telling you they can't is not acceptable. Patience pays off in the end.