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 Looking back now Prohibition was poorly conceived, ineffectively enforced, and ultimately repealed as it became increasingly unpopular during the Great Depression.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.


  1. FINALLY! Glad to hear that there is a voice of reason out there. I'm certainly not against uniform penalties across the country and the banning of many drugs, but as you point out, the legislation is so ambiguous and poorly conceived that just about anything could be considered illegal at any time. Though necessary, any uniform plan needs to be better thought out and constructed. Nice job.

  2. One more standard trainer justification for doping horses. If currently legal medications enable a particular horse to win despite physical problems, then why not drugs which will enable a horse lacking the physical capabilities to be competitive through chemistry.

    It started with bute, then came lasix. Then the dam gates burst, and horses were racing with three, four or more drugs to enable them to run.

    If all medication were banned today, there would still be nine winners at Churchill one the next race day. They might not be the same nine, but the races would be run and there would be a winner in each race.

    In addition, owners would not be soaked for hundreds of dollars in vet bills. And the bettor would not have to try and guess whether the trainer was really trying to win, and had administered drugs which were masked by combinations of legal drugs, or had under dosed a legal medication to "help" a horse finish up the track.

    If a horse has an injury, give it the rest it needs instead of masking the problem and risking the life of the horse and jockey. No, that would be too simple for many of the folks who run this game.

  3. No, it doesn't mean you can't treat your horses, and doesn't mean you have to watch what you're using--just that IF IT SHOWS UP in a post race test, by God you'd better be prepared for the backlash. I'm all for getting the best treatment out there but there's a HUGE difference between trying to heal a horse (therapeutic medicine/treatment) and trying to steal a race with a banned substance or narcotic. I would be for uniform rules and standards across the country but fear that with constant intrastate problems to solve there's no way we'll see an interstate commission in my lifetime.

  4. Switzer
    From your answer it appears that you neither understand horses or the issue discussed.