View From The Eighth Pole: Does HBPA Want Racing To Return To The Dark Ages?

For as long as I’ve been in racing, the leaders of some horsemen’s organizations have insisted that any regulatory change on drug policies will cause the sky to fall.

“You can’t take a therapeutic medication like anabolic steroids away from us or we won’t have any geldings left to race,” I remember hearing a Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association officer saying in the 1990s. Anabolic steroids may have a place in post-surgery therapeutic treatments for horses but the drug was widely being abused as a performance-enhancer given to healthy horses to build muscle mass.

Even when baseball’s steroids scandal erupted nearly 20 years ago, change was slow to come to racing. We went from virtually no limits on anabolic steroid use in some U.S. racing jurisdictions to “regulating” the drug in ways that trainers and veterinarians quickly learned how to circumvent, making fools of the regulators.

Thankfully, despite the opposition from some horsemen, steroids now have been effectively banned from racing. Geldings are doing just fine without the drug. The sky did not fall.

It did lead trainers and veterinarians to find a substitute drug that could achieve a similar outcome. Clenbuterol became the drug of choice for many trainers, not because of its therapeutic value to treat airway obstruction as intended, but because it had an anabolic steroidal effect on muscle mass.

During Congressional testimony 10 years ago, a National HBPA officer called clenbuterol “probably the best drug that’s come out in 30 years.” He was right. It was an especially good drug for trainers who were willing to push the envelope and make it part of their feed program. Win percentages soared among some horsemen who became super trainers overnight, thanks to clenbuterol. Because it has been so widely abused, clenbuterol is also in the process of being eliminated against the wishes of many who have relied on it as a performance-enhancer.

Twenty years ago, horses racing in Kentucky could be administered up to five drugs on race day, including two non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, one corticosteroidal anti-inflammatory, and two anti-bleeding medications.

I repeat: up to five drugs on race day were permitted.

When the Kentucky Racing Commission began discussions to eliminate most of the race-day treatments (Banamine or flunixin was quite popular), you’d have thought the world was coming to an end. The whining and hand-wringing from the Kentucky HBPA was something to behold.

Treating aches and pains with powerful anti-inflammatories four hours before a race was considered “good for the horse.” We now know that those drugs may conceal musculoskeletal conditions that can lead to fatal injuries. Administration of anti-inflammatories was pushed back from four hours, to 24 hours, to 48 hours.

The sky didn’t fall, but the percentage of fatal injuries did.

Ten years ago, a couple of sunbelt states were still permitting race-day administration of a corticosteroid, Solu-Delta-Cortef (prednisolone sodium succinate), because the local HBPAs convinced regulators the drug prevented heat stroke. The drug’s label said it was a fast-acting agent useful in alleviating lameness. Another reason the drug was used right before a race, an equine veterinarian told me, was because it has a calming effect on nervous horses. In other words, a performance enhancer.

Horsemen’s groups argued elimination of Solu-Delta-Corfef on race day would lead to horses passing out right and left during the summer heat.

That didn’t happen. The sky did not fall.

We’ve heard the National and local HBPAs and their trainer members hyperventilate about eliminating race-day Lasix (furosemide). They warned us about jockeys having blood-splattered riding pants because of horses hemorrhaging during the stress of competition.

Horses do bleed, many of them even when treated with Lasix. In some cases, there is evidence of external bleeding from the nostrils. But when 95 to 100 percent of horses are given this drug on race day while the rest of the racing world can live without it, something doesn’t add up.

The sky has not fallen because race-day Lasix has been eliminated in 2-year-old races and stakes in some racing states.

And now in all their wisdom, various HBPA affiliates are lining up in court to oppose the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. In a court filing in support of Louisiana litigation aimed at stopping HISA from being able to enforce its regulations, the various horsemen’s groups say that HISA rules “post a clear and present danger” to their “ability to participate in the horseracing industry without suffering economic ruin.” They claim HISA rules “undermine the integrity of the sport.”

That is complete hogwash.

The groups that signed off on this court filing are being disingenuous. Rather than help the industry move toward sensible national rules that will create a level playing field for racing participants and present a sport the public can accept, they seemingly would have the industry return to the dark ages of anabolic steroids, clenbuterol, and race-day painkillers. And they want regulators at the state level that they can control.

If they win, racing loses.

That’s my view from the eighth pole.

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