Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Those who do not learn from history...

One of the largest commercial supporters of sports in America, horseracing included, is the brewery giant, Anheuser-Busch. It is almost unthinkable now that at one point in American history roughly 90 years ago, the products that Anheuser-Busch produces were considered illegal. The Volstead Act, which was passed by Congress in late 1919, effectively defined any intoxicating liquor of any manner to be deemed illegal to produce, sale or consume in any of the 48 states. Looking back now Prohibition was poorly conceived, ineffectively enforced, and ultimately repealed as it became increasingly unpopular during the Great Depression. The side effects of the Volstead Act were "the proliferation of rampant underground, organized and widespread criminal activity". Think Elliot Ness fighting gangsters in the Untouchables or Capone waging a gang war in the St. Valentines Day Massacre. While the period provided material for some great cinematic triumphs the fact is that at one point in American history the majority of citizens and ultimately Congress actually thought that having the Federal government ban all alcohol was a good idea.

How does this tie in to the current debate on medication you might be asking? Well the answer is that the lessons of Prohibition should be remembered as we consider the IHIA. Undoubtedly the Anti-Saloon League's agenda driven policy of eliminating alcohol and it's adjoining "evils" sounded like a good idea to many, including Congress in 1919. If you didn't drink it was most likely an easy decision to support the 18th amendment as surely there was at least one negative, alcohol-fueled incident in most people's experience. The thought might have been "this doesn't directly affect me because I don't drink or rarely imbibe so perhaps eliminating alcohol will eliminate a lot of problems associated with alcohol". Of course banning something isn't necessarily going to keep people from still doing it and no one thought perhaps we are going to create a whole new set of problems by trying to eliminate instead of better regulate. 

We all know how Prohibition created immense wealth for the criminal gangs which took over production, importation and distribution from legitimate businesses. It is also easily recalled that the Federal government did a poor job of enforcing prohibition as by 1925 an estimated 30000 speakeasy clubs existed in New York City alone. When caught the criminals often wound up going free as the booming bootlegging business gave them cash to hire powerful lawyers and bribe often low paid officials and potential witnesses. Doesn't this sound vaguely familiar?

Fast forward to 2011 and substitute equine drugs for alcohol. "Let's get rid of all these drugs" is the new battle cry. Many people spend 3 seconds pondering the issue and decide that "yeah that sounds like a great idea". I mean how can these crazy trainers actually be FOR drugs, especially these "performance enhancers"? Don't they know that drugs are bad and hay, oats and water is good? Compared to alcohol use in humans, drugs in regards to racehorses can certainly be abused but the vast majority of people use them responsibly despite the propaganda being leveled against trainers and vets by supporters of IHIA. 

Like the Volstead Act, the IHIA looks to supersede states authority and create a Federal law that deals with performance enhancing substances. Similarly it seems that the vast majority of people who this bill does not directly effect are in support of it.  Despite the protests of the people who actually understand the side effects that this bill will create, it seems like those pleas are not even being considered. Naturally those in support  were misguided in 1920 and they are likewise in 2011.

Al Capone already exists in this game. His name isn't Capone anymore but you can substitute whatever local training savant suits you. He is already reaping ill-gained profits and in many cases has virtually no rap sheet because the authorities are woefully underfunded, disinterested, incompetent or most likely some combination of all of these. He isn't fazed by IHIA because what he is doing is already illegal and nothing is happening now. The dirty little secret behind the IHIA is that there seems to be no change in who conducts the testing and there is no mention of something that would be more effective than post race testing, actual investigation. The legitimate trainer will be handcuffed by the woefully inadequate definition of "performance enhancing drug" while for the 2011 training Al Capone's, business will continue to boom, lawyers will continue to be hired if somebody screws up and life will simply go on. 

 The following the definition given by the IHIA:

Performance Enhancing Drugs
The term “performance enhancing drug” means any substance capable of affecting the 
performance of a horse at any time by acting on the nervous system, cardiovascular system, 
respiratory system, digestive system, urinary system, reproductive system, musculoskeletal 
system, blood system, immune system (other than licensed vaccines against infectious 
agents), or endocrine system of the horse

Note the bolded words. 
What does "any substance" mean to you? It could mean EPO or elephant juice. It could mean Clembuterol. It could be any one of the thousands of FDA approved (though not necessarily for equines- a topic for another day) drugs. OR it could mean oats, hay, or water. They all are certainly capable of acting on a horses digestive system among other systems. Or Vitamin C. Or any number of minerals. Or sugar. Or just about anything found anywhere. 

Let me ask you another question. What does any substance any time... mean to you? Does this mean that I can't treat my sick horses with antibiotics? What about a horse that has a foot abscess? We cant give him something to relieve his pain? I'm not being paranoid because this IS what it says AND they do go and make a distinction for vaccines so why just them and not other "substances"? What do you do for a horse showing signs of colic? Hope? Think I'm overreacting? Show of hands of those who feel comfortable operating within gray area's of Federal law? Anyone?

Oh they are very specific in the penalty section though. There is a three strikes and you are out policy that makes no distinction between an innocuous, 6 parts per trillion positive of a commonly used ulcer medication or morphine. That should please the lunatic fringe that believes trainers all have horsey meth labs set up in their garages. Had this policy been in effect over the last 20 years virtually every trainer of a large stable would be banned for life. Considering the new nebulous definition of a performance enhancing drug, the theoretical good guys are in danger as well. Of course we all know that not all are treated equally in life or horseracing and surely some of the fair haired boys transgressions would be withheld for "the good of the sport". I'm bald so you know where I am classified.

The biggest injustice in the entire drug testing system currently in place is that the detection of a drug is considered an infraction despite very little research into supporting the theory that the substance in question at that level had ANY affect on the horse's performance. The supposed improvement act not only does not address this injustice but accelerates the issue by calling virtually everything a drug now. 

Next time you have a drink remember that in the not that distant past you'd be breaking the law. Now you know how we feel.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The blind appealing to the stupid...

Horse racing in America is a wonderfully complex cross between an athletic sport, a gambling venture and an agribusiness. The levels of competition varies wildly from bush tracks running in Louisiana to million dollar babies competing at historic Saratoga. The sport has a rich tradition seen in events like the Kentucky Derby which has been run at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky for 137 years. The exotic wagers now played at tracks across the country have pools that sometimes reach into the millions of dollars with six figure payoffs. The economic impact of horse racing is estimated by the American Horse Council in terms of GDP to be $10 billion dollars in direct impact and $26 billion in total. In 2005 there were over 380,000 jobs supported by horse racing. 

Too bad a few people are willing to throw it all away. 

I once trained for a partnership in which Arthur Hancock was the lead member. The horse was pretty slow and when his higher profile trainer needed to race him below where his usual circuit ran, he sent me the horse. We won a few races with him at the lower end of the scale and the horse was eventually claimed. I spoke to Mr Hancock a few times and he was a pleasure to deal with. Personally I like him and respect the niche he has created in the business by doing his own thing. 

But he is about to destroy the business of horse racing.

Understanding that the way medication or drugs have been dealt with in the United States in terms of the horse racing business has been a complete mess is a point that we all agree on. Because horse racing has been run on a state by state or track by track manner we have many different regulations though most aren't really that different since the work done by the RMTC that anyone but vets or trainers or racing lab chemists would even notice. Steroid use was not even regulated before it was ultimately banned a few years ago in a public relations move prompted by the high profile breakdown of a horse who wasn't even found to be on steroids. It is safe to say that on the national level we have failed to bring forth a coherent medication policy that would not only address differences between the jurisdictions but would be based upon scientific valid information and would bring painful penalties for those found to be breaking the rules. The status quo is not acceptable to most of the horseman and veterinarians that are currently working on the front lines of the sport. There are some trainers that are seemingly "too good" and we all know that human nature and greed can sometimes overwhelm common sense and moral judgement especially when there is a lot of money on the line. Trainers and vets who "push the limits" or in plainer terms, "cheat", are not only taking dirty money out of the pool but they are unfairly propping themselves up professionally, often seeing a spike in their business from the owner element that simply wants to win at any cost regardless of the method.  The vast majority of owners and trainers and gamblers want to see these guys rooted out and tossed from the game. However it isn't exactly going to happen that way with the carpet bombing of the business of American horseracing known as the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act.

If you have ever seen the movie "Trading Places" you will recall the theme of the movies revolves around a bet between two wealthy businessmen brothers on a social engineering theory that one of the brothers has. Mortimer Duke has a theory that he believes in and makes a token bet with his brother Randolph of one dollar. The ultimate tale that is told is that the two rich brothers disrupt the lives of many with no regard to the damage caused just to see if their own theory was right or wrong. Where am I going with this? Well welcome to horse racing's version starring Mr. Hancock, George Strawbridge, Roy and Gretchen Jackson and all the others who have thrown support behind this bill. They are betting the future of horse racing on the Federal Government's ability to stop trainers from using Lasix. They have a theory that people aren't betting our races anymore because the horses are over medicated or in their terms, drugged. Of course there is no actual evidence this is true. They also have a theory that the breeding stock has been genetically altered due to use of medication and drugs over the last few decades. Naturally there is really no evidence for this either. But hey it's our theory and we are sticking to it!!! 

Without rehashing the same pros or cons of Lasix in particular (despite there being a preponderance of scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness) the new tactic of calling it a performance enhancer is ridiculous. It is like trying to make Nike's illegal because LeBron James hits a few game winning shots. "He wears those so they must be giving him an advantage". Of course since virtually every horse can run on Lasix and every player can wear Nikes there is no advantage gained. So onto the breeding theory! What amazes me is that if these well-heeled people actually believed that this medicated/breeding nonsense was true why didn't any of them try to create a better product by selectively breeding using supposedly drug-free  European, Asian, South American and Australian breeding stock? If you had the money and were so passionate that you'd invite the feds to your house, why not just prove the theory yourself without dragging the rest of the racing industry down with you?

Why so pessimistic you may ask? 

Well unlike most of the people who signed the letter of support, I deal with real life racing issues on a daily basis. I have no billionaire owners. I have no graded stakes quality horses. I didn't inherit millions and I haven't made a ton of money in another business. My livelihood is dependent on my racing stable and I have neither the time nor funds to play out grand experiments. The horses I train are the ones that people that signed the letter didn't want. They are either not bred well enough or physically flawed or in some cases both. My horses aren't usually going to wind up in a breeding shed, there is little residual value so they have to earn. If they aren't able to pay their way we move them along to new careers and are careful with who we deal with in that regard. We can't just "give them time" every time a bump or bruise arises. We can't adhere to the preposterous theory that horses with physical issues such as allergies or poor feet shouldn't be allowed to race because those in ivory towers don't want them to have access to modern medicines that deal with their inherited issues. We can't just kick a filly out for 3 months every time they might tie up or bump their shin. We can't afford to send our horses who might bleed to get hypobaric treatments every time they run. We aren't playing this game as a hobby, this is a business.

So maybe my horses and owners aren't impactful on the national scene. We probably won't have any Derby horses next year and we surely won't be getting any horses from the people we are more or less calling out. But I have trained for hundreds of people during my years training, earned millions of dollars for them and have had tens of millions wagered on my horses. The thing is there are way more guys like me out there in this business than there are people on that list. WE are the backbone of this sport, not those which wish to invoke a Federal bureaucratic nightmare on us over some theory. We need to save the sport from this monstrosity which not only will lead to more horses bleeding (negative), compromise horses form when they do bleed or don't bleed which will now be much more random (negative), will ultimately lead to higher vet bills (negative-it cost WAY more to treat a horse that had bled than it does to give a $20 shot of Lasix), will cause many owners to leave the game because of the higher costs associated with owning horses especially if they are unfortunate enough to buy a horse that bleeds from someone off of that list or are constantly having to send horses to the farm to supposedly heal ailments (negative), won't address the questionable practice of putting screws and wires in baby horses legs to straighten them out and sell them as new (negative), won't address the real drug problem of the mystery guys who are able to win 42% and yet never get a bad test (negative), and will leave the ivory tower people lacking anything else to blame once all its bogeymen are gone.

American horse racing has many issues to deal with in 2011. The economy is still in the tank, there is a serious lack of owners and soon to be a serious lack of horses. The takeout is still too high most places, the product on the track is still weak overall. It is still very expensive to breed, raise and train a thoroughbred racehorses and that won't change. We need creative minds and we need real change. We need to develop new players who see the advantages that racing gives them that other forms of gambling dont like the ability to make a lot from a little. Exchange markets operated by the industry with the profits going to the participants who put the show on is where the Federal Govt can get involved. Keep the third party foreign companies from siphoning off the huge profits that exchange wagering in the US will produce. Spend time and money investigating the 42% trainers, these guys are ripe to get caught, they aren't master criminals and the stuff has to get into the horses somehow. REAL CHANGE NOT CHANGE IN THEORY!

If you have gotten to this point I ask just one thing of you. Read the bill that is proposed. It is a piece of garbage that should cost Whitfield and Udall their seats for sponsoring such a joke of a bill. The severe lack of clarity or specifics is appalling for Communist China let alone America.

 "The use of performance enhancing drugs is widespread in the United States, where no uniform regulations exist with the respect of the use of and testing for performance enhancing drugs in interstate horseracing" is on the 1st page of the bill. The premise I suppose is that Lasix is a performance enhancing drug because since 99.8% of samples tested are negative it is hard to say with any truth that use of drugs is widespread. In regard to regulations and Lasix virtually every state has close to identical regulations on Lasix. 1st page, basically inflammatory and inaccurate statement. US Congressman everyone!

Read the definition of "drug". Basically everything under the sun can be construed as a drug including food and water, carrots and sugar! 

This is going to cause false positives for innocuous things, make caring for horses technically illegal in many cases and lets not forget that there are no timetables known or given for any specific medications since virtually everything is banned for no actual specified time. So you could in theory buy a horse at the Fasig-Tipton May 2 year old in training sale, give him a few weeks off, get him ready for Saratoga, run him in the middle of August, never give him a drop of anything other than hay, oats and water and still come up with a positive test for something given to him prior to you owning the horse. Yeah this is the answer....

With respect given to the recent false alarm rapture I leave you with this...

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)