JC / Railbird

Drugs in Racing

All That and a Dose of Thyroxine

Arthur Hancock III:

… “therapeutics” given to horses that don’t need them are abusive.

Let’s put aside Lasix, the subject of Hancock’s phrase above, and talk about thyroxine, the synthetic thyroid hormone supplement trainer Bob Baffert admitted dosing his entire stable with during a period in which seven horses under his watch died suddenly. Trainer Steve Asmussen did the same, a practice that became public knowledge following a PETA expose. Both were cleared of doing anything illegal or improper in investigations that largely dismissed indiscriminate thyroxine use as acceptable, rule-abiding care.

“I haven’t found a barn that uses it on all their horses,” said California equine medical director Dr. Rick Arthur of the Baffert barn regimen, yet: “[The thyroxine] was legally dispensed and reported as labeled. It was within their right to do so. There is no violation of any rules.”

“The KHRC also did not uncover evidence of a rule violation with respect to thyroid hormone supplementation,” determined Kentucky re: Asmussen (PDF).

It’s a measure of how thoroughly the discussion about dispensing therapeutic drugs like carrots has been shut down following both investigations that I feel it’s in bad taste to bring the issue up right now, when Baffert is going for the Triple Crown with American Pharoah in a bit more than a week. I mean, even the Paulick Report — the publication that most aggressively chased the Baffert sudden death story — is running a piece lauding the trainer’s “horse sense” and speculating that he might be “the chosen one” to win racing’s most elusive prize. Ed Zieralski worried that “a lynching party” would pursue Baffert in 2013 if he made it to the Kentucky Derby that year (he didn’t) — he doesn’t have to be concerned about that this year, when even an inquiry about a case of colic in a Baffert Derby contender “wasn’t a question that could be asked,” in the words of Daily Racing Form correspondent Marcus Hersh.

Baffert told reporters at Churchill Downs earlier this week that dealing with the media in New York before the Belmont Stakes would be a challenge:

“To me, that’s the hardest part. You have to deal with everybody. This is easy — today with you guys. But when we get up there, everybody is going to want to push the race and all that.”

And all that. I hope it’s all that. I hope some reporter breaches etiquette.

Commodities

From Glenye Cain Oakford’s interview with owner George Strawbridge:

“Then, you have the PETA video … maybe that was a turning point. I’m not saying it is, but it could be, because it takes the question out of the realm of just cheating. Maybe the majority of people don’t care about the cheating because maybe they just see it as racing insiders cheating each other, but when PETA shows up with this video, that expands the equation to cruelty to animals, which I think most people do care about. If you love horses, you don’t call them rats and treat them like commodities.”

And you don’t “feed” them unnecessary drugs. More on that point, and the HBO Real Sports segment that aired earlier this week, from Tom Noonan:

The more disturbing reality, however, is that horses are given too many drugs, even if they are “legal.” They are often given, as HBO stated, to make a horse run faster or to mask a painful condition, and not because it is necessary to treat a diagnosed medical issue. One segment of the PETA video that was replayed by HBO was of a vet describing Lasix as a performance-enhancing drug. Almost every horse racing in this country is racing with Lasix. Thyroxine is being “fed” to horses not because it is necessary, but because it is viewed as a performance enhancer.

Harthill’s Legacy

Take a break from handicapping tomorrow’s Churchill Downs card and read this fascinating story by Ryan Goldberg about veterinarian Alex Harthill, the 1964 Kentucky Derby, and the origins of the modern drug culture in racing:

It is unclear if Northern Dancer was a true bleeder. His performances on the track — except for a third-place finish against weaker company in early 1964 — suggest he may not have bled badly, and Harthill had other reasons for administering it. Veitch said Harthill had told him that Northern Dancer was hot-blooded and that the diuretic would lower his blood pressure and calm his volatility. He wouldn’t leave his race in the paddock, as horsemen say.

The Indefensible

Andrew Beyer:

It is wrong to characterize Asmussen as a bad apple. It is unfair to single him out for stigmatization. And it was thoroughly disingenuous for Phipps to say, “His presence and participation [in the Kentucky Oaks and Derby] would indicate that it’s just ‘business as usual’ in the thoroughbred industry.”

Through the industry, the indiscriminate use of drugs is business as usual.

Yes. And so long as it is, racing will be a target for groups like PETA.

Or Congress.

The Hong Kong Model

Eric Mitchell interviews Dr. Christopher Riggs, the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s top veterinarian, about the on-track pharmacy system there. Despite differences in how horses are trained and stabled in Hong Kong vs. America, it’s an enlightening exchange, particularly re: specific questions that vets have raised in response to racetrack owner Frank Stronach’s proposed reforms.

The Target

Trainer Rusty Arnold defends Steve Asmussen:

The two medications alluded to in the video (Lasix and thyroid powder) are both legal to have and legal to use. So, what crime has Steve committed?

None, but that’s the issue, isn’t it? The indiscriminate dosing of horses with unnecessary drugs has become routine. Maybe it shouldn’t be.

No Trace

When Kentucky mandated last year that state veterinarians give pre-race Lasix shots, in place of private vets, the results were eye-opening, reports Ryan Goldberg in the final installment of TDN’s drugs in racing series (PDF):

Besides the volume of Lasix [which declined], murkier drugs largely disappeared from post-race tests. Scollay said she had seen evidence that a drug called GABA, short for gamma-aminobutyric acid, was commonplace in Kentucky. The amino acid, which is present in the supplement “Carolina Gold,” is endogenous to horses as well as humans — it’s the predominant receptor blocker in the central nervous system. It has a pain-mitigating and calming effect that can conserve a horse’s energy prior to a race. However, because it’s naturally occurring and leaves a horse’s system within three to four hours, finding suspicious levels in post-race tests is difficult.

Its use in Kentucky was apparently curtailed once regulatory vets came in. The “noise” in post-race samples all but departed. Lasix is administered within four hours of a race; private vets were apparently giving GABA at the same time. There was no trace.

Wow. I wonder if the same thing happened in New York after the NYRA detention barn — in which horses were monitored for six hours before a race and only state vets could administer Lasix — opened in 2005, and if the concentration of Lasix in the blood, as well as the presence of other drugs or supplements in test samples, rebounded after it closed in 2010?

← Before