JC / Railbird

Kentucky

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.

Pop, Pop, Pop

Steve Haskin on the 32 strikes debate:

Did Victor Espinoza overdo his use of the whip in the Kentucky Derby? It would certainly appear that he did. In his mind, was it abuse or mistreatment? Of course not …

So, while Espinoza is guilty of overuse of the whip on Stellar Wind, and arguably American Pharoah, and deserves to be punished, incidents like that are going to continue unless we adopt policies like the one they have in England. Not because of any cruel intent, but because of the natural act of using the whip to urge on a horse. You can’t just tell a jockey to stop something he’s done all his life. You have to make penalties serve as an inducement where he at least thinks about what he’s doing and learns to control his actions. The British jockeys have learned it; so can ours.

It sounds as though the stewards’ review of the Kentucky Derby is over:

“We have [reviewed the ride again] and we have the same feeling we had after the race was over: It’s within the boundaries of our regulations. He did hit the horse quite a few times but it was all within the rules of the state.”

Calvin Borel explains why jockeys may use padded crops more:

“You have to hit them six times to one times to the old crop; that’s what it amounts to, because they really don’t feel it,” Borel said. “With that kind of crop [padded], you have to — not hit them hard — but keep popping them.

“Riders hit them more often probably because of the pop, pop, pop; it keeps making noise. And it probably looks worse. With the regular whip, you get their attention when you hit them one time.”

Whipping the Issue

Pull the Pocket on Victor Espinoza’s heavy hand in the Kentucky Derby:

I don’t know why we make things so difficult in horse racing: 32 is excessive by any measure. That’s against a rule, thus you penalize him. Next year, if you don’t want to see the same thing on national TV, you pass, or alter the rule beforehand and let the jocks know in the room that excessive use will result in a 14 day suspension. That would not allow the jock to ride in the Preakness. The jocks — who are professionals — will fall in line and your problem will be solved.

Except the people charged with keeping the rules don’t seem to see an issue with what happened. Although there are plans to review Espinoza’s whip use on American Pharoah, “clearly this is a discretionary issue,” chief steward Barbara Borden told Marty McGee (DRF paywalled, sorry). If there’s a point to press, it’s in the rule that a horse be given time to respond after being struck. As I said elsewhere, it didn’t look as though Pharoah got that.

Trainer Bob Baffert also downplayed how Espinoza used his riding crop on American Pharaoh, saying during the NTRA teleconference on Tuesday:

“I never noticed it during the race, and then … I read something yesterday. I went back and looked at it. The horse — first of all, the whips they use now, they’re so light … and he was just keeping him busy, because … the horse was not responding when he turned for home … he just was keeping him busy, and he was flogging him and hitting him, but he hits him on the saddle towel. He doesn’t really hit that hard, so he was just keeping him busy.”

It’s “flogging,” but it’s not a problem. And for the most part, watching most races, I agree, especially about allowing riders discretion — jockeys say the crop is required for safety and control, and because they’re the people putting their mobility and lives on the line in each race, theirs is the perspective that most matters. The crop also has a place in encouraging a horse. But neither control nor encouragement get in the way of articulating and enforcing limits.

Related to whipping not being a problem (in a slightly different way), here’s a quick post Dana Byerly put together last fall when Santa Anita was considering a change to its whip use rule (the new rule, which restricts riders to three consecutive strikes before they must pause, passed statewide in November).

6:45 PM Addendum: Santa Anita stewards have fined Espinoza $300 for a whip violation. He broke the skin of Stellar Wind in the Santa Anita Oaks on April 4, as reported by the state veterinarian in the test barn post-race. Trainer John Sadler tells the Blood-Horse, though, “This is the first I’ve heard of it and I don’t remember noticing any marks on the horse then.”

Peak Pharoah

Dick Jerardi on American Pharoah (subscription only):

Some think the Derby might knock him out. I see it another way, that the Derby may have gotten American Pharoah the fitness he never was able to get this winter. If you think about it, he had less preparation than any horse in the race and won anyway. The Derby had to be worth five workouts. I think his career-best performance is coming May 16 at Pimlico.

That’s my bet. American Pharoah had to exert himself to win last Saturday. The effort should sharpen him for the Preakness.

Victor Espinoza whips American Pharoah down the stretch of the 2015 Kentucky Derby

Victor Espinoza’s whip use on Pharoah during his Derby run will be reviewed (beware, that’s a Courier-Journal paywall-popup link):

Chief state steward Barbara Borden told The Courier-Journal on Wednesday that Kentucky racing officials plan to look at the stretch run and Espinoza’s tactics again, though, “We watched it many, many times prior to making it official, and that wasn’t anything that got our attention.”

Borden said there’s no set limit in Kentucky for how many times a jockey can whip a horse during a race. As for American Pharoah’s Derby win, she said the ride “didn’t stand out to us to be super excessive.”

Kentucky’s rules on riding crop use allow plenty of latitude, requiring “a jockey who uses a riding crop during a race shall do so only in a manner consistent with exerting his or her best efforts to win,” and specifying that the rider:

Show the horse the riding crop and give the horse time to respond before striking the horse;

(b) Having used the riding crop, give the horse a chance to respond before using it again; and

(c) Use the riding crop in rhythm with the horse’s stride.

See section 15 of the KHRC regulations for the full text.

The issue of how many times Espinoza struck American Pharoah came up when a Bloomberg recap by David Papadopoulos appeared the morning after the Kentucky Derby with the sensational headline, “American Pharoah Whipped 32 Times in Victory” (both New York Times reporter Joe Drape and Daily Racing Form correspondent Jay Privman also noted the number of strikes in their post-race analysis). Papadopoulos’ point was more about what the whipping said of Pharoah’s effort and his chances for the rest of Triple Crown season, although you can read some judgement of Espinoza’s tactics in the comparison with Joel Rosario on fourth-place finisher Frosted:

Beyond being aesthetically unpleasing to watch, so many blows can take a lot out of a horse, each one acting as a forceful prodding to try harder. And at some point, they stop being effective. Stronger-finishing jockeys, like Joel Rosario, who rode fourth-place finisher Frosted, rely much less on the stick to drive their horses to the finish line. Rosario hit Frosted only four times as he surged toward the leaders late in the Derby.

For comparison, Espinoza struck California Chrome approximately 20 times on the way to his win in the 2014 Kentucky Derby. All after the eighth pole, and mostly timed to Chrome’s stride. He was still a bit free-handed with the crop, but less desperate, as Chrome was in the lead from earlier in the stretch.

In a conversation about whip use on Twitter, Sid Fernando commented “[U]ntil Bloomberg guy counted, AP whip didn’t even register to me as [Rachel Alexandra’s] did [in the 2009 Woodward].” That may have been the last time there was a high-profile flap about how much a jockey used his crop in a stakes race. Rachel Alexandra was struck 21 times by rider Calvin Borel on her way to winning. As Steven Haskin wrote then for the Blood-Horse:

Did Rachel need to be hit 21 times? Only Borel can answer that. Unlike the British stewards, American stewards pay no attention to such things, so we’ll just have to assume Borel felt the situation was desperate enough to resort to such measures.

I suppose we’ll have to assume the same about this year’s Derby.

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?

Tipping Point?


Dutrow in happier days.

“RICK DUTROW DONE,” was the search term that led someone to Railbird this morning, presumably seeking more on yesterday’s shocking news that the KHRC denied the trainer a Kentucky license because of his lengthy list of violations and license application inconsistencies. “I never thought I’d see the day when a big-name trainer was held to task for his misdeeds,” tweeted Ryan Goldberg. Regardless of what happens next, there’s no denying, as the Racing Post put it so well, that “controversial trainer Rick Dutrow hit a new career low” on Wednesday. He has a chance to hit another in May, when New York reviews his license, or possibly when his biggest client, IEAH, pulls its stock from his barn. “Obviously, we can’t be in a position where our horses can’t run in certain jurisdictions,” Michael Iavarone told DRF.

A restraining order will make it possible for Amen Hallelujah, entered by Dutrow before his hearing, to start in the Vinery Madison today*.

Brooklyn Backstretch has posted a timely interview with RCI president Ed Martin on Dutrow’s record and the letter Martin wrote to the NYSRWB in February calling for an examination of his license: “His record is his record.” That’s just it, and Dutrow doesn’t help himself when he makes excuses:

He also said any misinformation on his license applications were not intentional but were due to the fact others completed the paperwork for him, and he just signed it.

Or refuses to take responsibility:

Dutrow said that was because he could not remember whether the incident occurred within the time frame stipulated on the application, but the committee could get copies of his criminal record in order to get the specifics.

What made the KHRC decision all the more interesting was the context. It’s spring, and racing seems to be in the mood to clean house. The movement to ban raceday medications is suddenly gaining real momentum. The latest group to sign on is the Breeders’ Cup, which announced today that its board:

… also endorsed in principle the recently announced recommendation of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) to eliminate the use of race-day medications in North American racing and decided to appoint a sub-committee with the objective of developing a plan and a timetable for the elimination of race-day medication in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

American racing is going drug-free! I don’t see what could stop … oh, right:

Saying they support efforts to limit race-day medications, two prominent Thoroughbred trainers said they hope the initiatives do not go so far as to ban use of the anti-bleeder drug known as Salix.

The horsemen are going to take to some work to win over:

The Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents all licensed owners and trainers, hasn’t discussed stricter medication rules, said president Rick Hiles, a trainer.

“We believe in therapeutic medications to help the animals,” he said, “so we’re probably not going to endorse it.”

But what about the celebrity owners, Mr. Hiles? Spare them a thought, as TDN publisher Barry Weisbord does in a column appearing yesterday:

When a prominent t.v. personality such as Bobby Flay or a successful young businessman like Mike Repole or Kevin Plank — any of whom could participate in any sport they’d like — decides to spend his free time participating in Thoroughbred racing, what do we do? We make it tougher on him by forcing him to continually answer this question: Why do you spend your time in an industry which drugs its athletes?

Asking them to answer that question, be it in the lead-up to a major race, or when they’re receiving some other recognition in their professional lives and the topic of racing comes up, is not only unfair, but has to diminish their enjoyment of their participation in racing.

Actually, I get this. When I talk to people who don’t know much about racing, the question of drugs often comes up, and I find myself choosing my words carefully and trying to tell the truth but not make it sound so, so bad. There’s a perception of shadiness attached to even the legal medications, regardless of their therapeutic qualities. Banning raceday drugs is about doing right by horses, and giving horseplayers and casual fans reason to trust in the integrity of the game — which is why all the meds, including Lasix, must go.

*Turns out, Amen’s start took a last-minute trainer change, an unusual move with implications for trainer responsibility (via @o_crunk).

4/15/11 Addendum: This is pretty funny:

Sallusto was not on the grounds for the [Vinery Madison], leaving jockey John Velazquez as the sole person to answer questions in the wake of the filly’s runner-up effort.

“No one,” was Velazquez’s response when asked who gave him pre-race instructions.

When asked whether he had talked with the trainer after the race, Velazquez replied, “Who is the trainer?”

Season of Malaise

John Pricci feels nothing at the release of the Life at Ten report:

But I’m afraid the industry has won, it’s beaten me down, stolen from me the energy needed to become angry. Taking it out of the realm of feelings, it’s a sad resignation I’m experiencing. Always, resignation.

In the short eight years I’ve paid serious attention to racing, I can’t think of a time where the industry felt so adrift, or so many fans so numb.

3/20/11 Addendum: Here’s your antidote to ennui.

← Before