Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Medication debate needs clear heads

Steven Crist, Daily Racing Form 4/2/2009

NEW YORK - As the Triple Crown season approaches, so does reopening the discussion - and the wounds - that followed the death of Eight Belles after last year's Kentucky Derby. Mass-media commentators and consumers who have basically ignored racing since last year's classics and their aftermath will return their attention to the sport for a couple of months, and many will be asking the same question: What has racing done to fix itself?

Based on a preview last week, an opening skirmish between The New York Times and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, it's going to be as ugly and irrelevant a dialogue as the original one last spring and summer.

The Times no longer considers racing a full-time beat - its coverage of the 2008 Saratoga meet consisted of dispatching a freelancer there for three days - but ran two similar columns last week sharply criticizing the sport for not having outlawed all raceday medications. One of them went on to position trainer John Gosden and his Derby Challenge winner Mafaaz as the great hopes of the medication-reform movement.

"Just think of how the conversation about horse racing would change if Mafaaz, a colt from England who has been raised on hay, oats and water, as old-timers like to say, won the Derby," wrote Joe Drape. He went on to say that Gosden "insists that a healthy

3-year-old should not need medication to race," apparently forgetting that Gosden won the Breeders' Cup Classic five months ago with a 3-year-old, Raven's Pass, who raced on both Butazolidin and Lasix.

The Times columns, which belittled industry efforts such as the Safety and Integrity Alliance, drew a sharp response from Alex Waldrop, the NTRA's chief executive. In a blog entry he entitled "Five Facts You Won't Read in The New York Times," Waldrop enumerated industry reforms such as the steroids and toe-grab bans, and said that Drape's column "contained errors and exaggerations and ignored irrefutable facts that did not support his premise." Waldrop also encouraged readers to complain to Drape and his editors.

This is not exactly a harbinger of a civilized and constructive debate as the volume inevitably rises in the weeks ahead. Sure, everyone should get his facts straighter, but it's a dead-end discussion because it's just not rooted in reality.

The death of Eight Belles had absolutely nothing to do with raceday medication, steroids, toe-grabs, whips, synthetic tracks, or any of the issues that have or haven't been addressed by the racing industry. It was an unpreventable accident, the only known fatality in the history of the race, not a result of the sport's failure to police itself better when it comes to worthy but unrelated issues. That's not a sexy or appeasing answer to those demanding that something be done, but it's the truth.

Waldrop's first "fact" in refuting critics was that "Anabolic steroids have been effectively banned in racing states representing 99.96 percent of Thoroughbred parimutuel handle." This may well have been a good and overdue idea but again has nothing to do with Eight Belles or any other high-profile breakdown in recent years - nor with Big Brown's winning the Derby and Preakness or losing the Belmont.

Anabolics have a completely different pharmacological use and effect in horses than in humans, and were always legal in racing, until the general public was misled into thinking they were dangerous, performance-enhancing hops. The industry can not credibly cite their ban as its top safety or integrity achievement.

Steroids were at once so hot-button a term and so unimportant an issue that it was relatively easy to get industry-wide support on a ban. Good luck doing the same with raceday medication. Not a single racing state or regulatory body has come out in support of such a ban, and any attempt to do so would be resisted by horsemen's groups through the courts on a state-by-state basis for years to come.

Racing was mistaken when it opened these floodgates in the 1970s. The vast majority of veterinarians and trainers insisted at the time that Bute and Lasix were humane medications necessary for horses to continue to run often enough to support expanded racing. It wasn't true and it hasn't worked - horses are making fewer starts than ever and the industry has contracted.

Plenty of observers, including this one, wish we could roll back the clock and get a do-over without those medications, which have not achieved their objective but have damaged public confidence and this country's standing in the international racing arena. That will remain a pipe dream, though, in the absence of any consensus among horsemen, industry leaders, and regulators that it is time to reopen that issue.

It's an important discussion for the sport, but one with little if any relevance to Eight Belles and the imminent explosion of public demand for the industry to provide easy answers and solutions that do not exist.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

right on

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