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)


  1. I would take a different angle on your last line: Please forgive us for what we have done and continue to do to our Thoroughbreds.

    @Highgunner - The voice for the "Unwanted Thoroughbred"

  2. This is the best posting I have read in a long time. Thank you, Chuck. Jim Gallagher

  3. This is an excellent article and well thought out. You bring up very valid points.

  4. To state that Lasix is not a performance enhancing drug is completely false. The fact that first time lasix is a common betting angle made known in all programs, forms or handicapping material, is sufficient evidence of its effects. Not only do trainers know this - many foreign trainers utilize this advantage when their horses compete in the US, but horseplayers and racing commentators are fully and completely aware of what a dramatic impact this can have on performance.

  5. Chancetimm
    The idea that Lasix gives a horse an unfair advantage over his competition who almost assuredly is also using it is silly. At one point people used the term "level playing field" as a goal but now for some reason we are focused on "performance enhancing". It is a slippery slope that makes Lasix a performance enhancer as couldn't the same be said about 1st time blinkers or first time turf? Is anyone calling blinkers or grass performance enhancers?