Ky Voices: Drug culture, lax rules hurt Thoroughbred industry

I'll Have Another ran down Bodemeister, right, to win the Kentucky Derby in May and went on the win the Preakness. He was retired with an injury before competing in the Belmont and now stands at stud in Japan. A ban on race-day medications will help retain the Derby's reputation.
I'll Have Another ran down Bodemeister, right, to win the Kentucky Derby in May and went on the win the Preakness. He was retired with an injury before competing in the Belmont and now stands at stud in Japan. A ban on race-day medications will help retain the Derby's reputation. Herald-Leader

A persistent effort by some trainers and veterinarians to continue running racehorses on pain-killing and performance-enhancing drugs — even if well-intentioned — is sadly a misguided path to the destruction of the sport of Thoroughbred racing and Kentucky's signature horse breeding industry.

The handwriting on the wall is clear. By allowing race-day medications, North American racing is out of step with a world that no longer views our competition as the best and our horses as being the highest quality.

For half a century, the Kentucky Thoroughbred was considered the most valuable and sought-after equine commodity on the planet. Buyers came from all over the world for no other reason than to buy horses capable of returning here to compete successfully in the Kentucky Derby and the other two legs of the Triple Crown.

That is no longer true.

On the horizon is a new consensus that the best horses are raised in Europe and the best and fairest racing is conducted elsewhere, too. And for the first time in the modern era, we are hearing that the best racehorse that ever lived is no longer Man O' War or Secretariat but a European named Frankel that never ate a blade of bluegrass.

If our image as a sport with a drug culture and rules that allow performance-enhancing drugs on race day are not changed, the decline will be continuous and devastating. There is no doubt that furosemide, previously known as Lasix and now called Salix, moves a horse up three to five lengths, which can mean a full second of race time. This is usually far more than enough advantage to decide every Triple Crown and Breeders Cup race, and most of the others.

It is well-known that in recent years foreign owners and trainers have sent their few horses diagnosed as bleeders to race in America permanently. And then they send horses that do not bleed over to compete in the Triple Crown, Breeder's Cup and other big-purse stakes, giving them what every trainer domestic and foreign believes to be an advantage of first-time furosemide.

They are beating us at our own game, not only on the track.

For the last 20 years, I have been active in breeding, owning and racing Thoroughbreds. My investment has been substantial and I have loved every minute of it. For most of that time, this beloved home state of mine was not only home to the world's greatest race but the clear leader in the breeding and sale of quality horses.

The Kentucky Derby is the shining face of our most glamorous and enviable industry, whose very existence and continued good health is critical for the future of the commonwealth. Entire industries have been spawned under its umbrella. It impacts tourism, restaurants, hotels, veterinarians, farmers and truck sales. The number of jobs at stake and the potential loss of revenue it represents are both immeasurable and unpredictable.

But during that same 20 years, racing's image as a drug-ridden sport has grown substantially. And Kentucky, which should be a leader in cleaning it up, has earned a reputation as a racing jurisdiction easy on drug enforcement and soft on violators.

At the same time, American-bred horses, the overwhelming majority of which are raised in Kentucky, have come to be viewed as flawed animals, raised on steroids for sale rather than for endurance and stamina on the racetrack.

Foreign buyers, who for more than a quarter of century spent literally hundreds of millions for Kentucky-breds, now contend they are no longer as sound and competitive as they used to be. Even though their ancestors now dominate European and Asian bloodlines.

It is no coincidence that the decline in the image of the sport and the horse perfectly parallels the introduction and spread of furosemide as a race-day medication. While those who oppose its discontinuance may do so believing it to be the best interest of the sport, all they have to do is read about the drug's side effects on the bones of the humans for which it was originally intended.

A drug that routinely results in the disruption of bone growth in immature animals cannot possibly be in the horse's best interest. The trauma caused by regular doses of a powerful diuretic results in a bone weakening process that inevitably increases the number of breakdowns and shortens the careers of American race horses.

Look no further than the number of contenders in this year's Kentucky Derby now sidelined by injury or already retired to stud. It is the same every year. By the time the Breeders' Cup rolls around, most Triple Crown stars are out of action, depriving the sport of heroes like Seabiscuit and John Henry.

Why should the world's most important race be the last one the contestants run? How long can its reputation survive being run on rules different from the Arc de Triomphe and the Breeders Cup?

Furosemide, which by most accounts may have been first used in the 1964 Derby, has not been good for racing. It needs to go, along with the regular injection of phenylbutazone that usually accompanies it. This is a known pain-killer whose use no one has justified to my satisfaction.

My understanding is that bute is an anti-inflammatory designed to offset the impact of furosemide. Together with the electrolytes and other supplements used in an attempt to compensate the horse for the dramatic loss of fluids caused by furosemide, the direct cost is more than $100 million annually to owners.

Trainers and veterinarians who believe they cannot survive without Salix need only to look at the long, grand history of the game.

The time has come for Kentucky to lead.

When Congress and the courts no longer consider it acceptable for human athletes in baseball, football and the Olympics to compete on drugs they take willingly, how long will it be before the federal government orders that we no longer give them to animals who have no choice in the matter?

Racing has three choices. It can quit racing on drugs willingly, be forced to do so by the government or continue on the path to self-destruction as a meaningful enterprise.