Steve Zorn, racing manager of Castle Village Farm, wrote a story in the New York Times on Saturday talking about how racing's drug problem is more complicated than it looks. While he talks about the short comings of the legislation proposed by Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, which by the way is supported by some prominent horse owners, he admits racing's drug problem has gotten out of control.
Yes, being Steve Zorn is a thoroughbred person, the article is written from the perspective of thoroughbred racing. However, make no mistake, standardbred racing has its own share of drug problems. One issue Zorn brings up is Lasix's bad effects on a race horse. Specifically he says,
But Lasix also causes a horse to lose 20-30 pounds immediately before a race, an obvious performance advantage, and that weight loss, in turn, requires more recovery time between races, perhaps accounting for some of the reduction in the number of races per year that horses run. Also, Lasix is reputed to be effective in masking the presence of some other drugs in post race testing
Zorn also cites how the career of thoroughbreds has been greatly reduced. The average season of a thoroughbred has been reduced to six races a year down from eleven fifty years ago and the average racing career of a thoroughbred is only eleven races down from forty-five races in the timeframe. Well, not mentioned in the article is the average number of starts a standardbred makes. When I started following this sport, back in the 1970's it was not uncommon to see a standardbred race forty plus starts a year and they tended to maintain their class level a lot more longer. Now you are lucky to see a horse race thirty times a year and when they re-appear the following year, how many times do we see that former $20,000 claimer racing for $10,000 or less? As for the our top three year olds, we're lucky to see them race between thirteen to twenty times during their sophomore year.
What happens to these horses with reduced racing careers? If they are lucky they head to a career at the stallion barn, but far too often, we find them working all too fast down the chain of race tracks to outposts like Thunder Ridge Raceway, or they find themselves in sales; a precursor to a possible road trip to Canada or Mexico.
My guess is a ban on medication would result in a couple of things. Some of the super trainers will be finding new careers outside of racing. While horses who are hurting will find themselves in the barn recuperating instead of racing through the pain, the overall population of available races horses will increase and horses will have longer, more stable careers. Race times will decrease, and we will find some of our stallions will end up being frauds as their speed will not be passed on becasue their speed was chemically enhanced. On the other hand, less of our future stallions will run into fertility problems at stud as the use of less medications will mean a reduced impact on horse fertility.
No, the Whitfield-Udall legislation is somewhat simplistic and needs refinement. As Zorn indicates, it does not provide for environmental contamination. But for how many years has racing looked away from the medication problem and continued to allow horsemen to continue operating with minimal penalties and allow stables to remain intact with horses just being transferred to a beard?
Maybe time has run out on the racing industry to police itself and it is time for the federal government to do what the industry has lacked the will to do. Rather than fight federal legislation, it would be better to work with the bill's sponsors to educate them on the realities of regulating medication so things like incidental contamination and thresholds are accounted for. The rooster has come home to roost.