by Teresa Genaro
Does Thoroughbred horse racing have a drug problem? It depends on whom you ask.
In Saratoga in August, Ed Martin of the Association of Racing Commissioners International declared unequivocally that the answer is no, saying that racing has "the most aggressive drug testing program in professional sports, testing for more substances with greater sensitivity than anyone else."
At the Albany Law School Racing and Gaming Institute (full disclosure: I presented at the Institute, on a wholly different topic), Martin provided plenty of stats that were published a month later. Obtained from state regulatory bodies, the numbers paint a pretty picture of the drug landscape in racing.
* Less than half of 1% (4.93%) of the samples tested contained a substance not allowed by racing’s medication rules. 324,215 samples were tested.
* 94% of violations were overages of legal medications. Such overages cannot, according to the ARCI report, be considered "horse doping."
* 47 samples tested in 2010 contained Class 1 or 2 drugs, which the ARCI would consider doping (the ARCI classifications are here, on page 31), accounting for 0.015% of total samples tested.
Looks pretty good, doesn’t it?
If this is true, how come so many people think racing is drug-riddled?
In McKinsey’s report for the Jockey Club, presented at the annual Round Table in August, 38% of those surveyed said that they would bet more if they knew horses were not given drugs, and 36% said that medication is one of the top three issues facing racing.
The report also cited a 2008 survey done by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association in which respondents (general sports fans and fans in the sport’s core base) cited performance enhancing drugs and therapeutic overages as two of their top three concerns about the sport (the third was the health and safety of the horses). A 2009 survey done by the Horseplayers Association of North American indicated that 59% of respondents were "extremely concerned" with illegal use of medication and drugs and racing.
According to McKinsey, 78% of stakeholder interviews with a variety of those involved in racing (including horsemen, regulators, media, racetrack executives, and horseplayers) highlighted medication of horses as an issue adversely affecting Thoroughbred racing.
And in calling for a ban on the use of race day furosemide (Lasix), Stuart S. Janney III, vice chairman of the Jockey Club and chairman of its Thoroughbred Safety Committee, cited "the need to change the public’s perception of our industry" as part of the motivation for banning Lasix.
The Jockey Club isn’t alone. Both the Breeders’ Cup and the American Graded Stakes Committee have announced a ban on Lasix: the Breeders’ Cup will not permit the use of Lasix in its 2-year-old races next year, and the American Graded Stakes Committee voted to implement a ban of race-day medications for 2-year-old graded stakes races for 2012.
According to both the NTRA and the ARCI, Lasix isn’t a drug. Not that kind of drug, anyway.
"For the purpose of this report we handled violations of the furosemide rule separately as a trainer can be cited for not having the medication in his horse as well as for an overage. Furosemide violations should not be considered ‘horse doping,’" reads the report.
Furosemide is a diuretic frequently–and legally–administered to horses in order to mitigate exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH), a condition in which the capillaries in horses’ lungs burst during the exertion of racing, commonly called "bleeding." While nearly all horses in the United States race on furosemide, most international racing jurisdictions prohibit its use on race day.
Its opponents cite a variety of criticisms of the drug: it dehydrates horses before strenuous exercise; it acts as a performance-enhancer because horses lose so much water weight before the race, permitting them to race better than they would without it; it creates a negative perception to the public; it sets North America outside international standards for racing.
Supporters of the medication contend that it’s a therapeutic drug used to combat EIPH, and that its use is a humane and safe way to address a horse’s medical problem. Some proponents of its use liken it to insulin for diabetics or high blood pressure medication in humans, characterizing it as a substance that controls a medical issue so that horses can perform optimally.
Says the ARCI, "Since most horses race with furosemide, it is a disservice to the sport to contend that one horse has an unfair advantage over another in a particular contest…it is wrong to equate the use of this medication to paint a picture that racing is ‘drug ridden.’"
Last March, the ARCI called for an end to all race day medications within five years. A month later, its board of directors voted to re-examine its position on race day furosemide, with no subsequent decision being announced.
A comment from the NTRA specifically separates Lasix from other medications. Said a representative via e-mail, "The 2008 survey did not attempt to classify Lasix as a performance enhancing drug or a therapeutic medication."
So does Thoroughbred horse racing have a drug problem? It depends on whom you ask. And, apparently, what the definition of "drug" is.