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April 30, 2009

Horse Racing's War on Drugs

Continuing its tough and much-needed critical examination of thoroughbred racing, The New York Times, in a piece written by reporter Joe Drape, published a probing examination of the industry’s ever-festering and seemingly intractable drug problem. The piece comes in the run-up to this Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, which everyone desperately hopes does not play out like last year’s race. Then, Eight Belles went down and was euthanized on the track after she was unable to run down Big Brown during the stretch, and Big Brown himself was subsequently found to have been dosed with steroids and he and his infamous trainer had a rapid fall from grace as they faltered badly in winning the Triple Crown.

Most drug addicts try to cover up the problem. And that’s the case in the thoroughbred industry. The Times queried the owners or trainers of the 20 horses to run in the Derby to share their veterinary records. From the pool of 20, there were three willing parties. Of those who refused—“a who’s who of thoroughbred racing,” said Drape—one trainer went so far as to cite his horse’s privacy.

Horses racing
© iStockphoto

There are way too many drugs in horse racing and an absence of transparency.

The thoroughbred industry cannot shake its drug problem, and the absence of a central racing authority leaves the states like a patchwork quilt when it comes to drug policies—with few states exhibiting any meaningful leadership. Drape notes that the U.S. has a higher breakdown rate than either England or Australia, and he quotes racing insiders who say that drugs are part of the reason.

The HSUS does not oppose horse racing per se (our policy statement provides more detail), but there are, to be sure, serious problems that we feel obligated to call out—rampant drug use, but also the absence of a national racing authority that can provide uniform rules, unforgiving track surfaces, early-age racing, breeding practices that make the horses vulnerable, and the sale of injured, spent, or poor-performing horses to foreign-owned slaughter plants. Given the reader responses to my past blogs on this issue, I know this is of concern to so many humane advocates and horse lovers.

We say it every year, and so does the Times: the industry needs a raft of reforms. It must start with a proper governance structure and a national body to oversee the sport and to set rules that apply in all jurisdictions. On the issue of drugs, the American Association of Equine Practitioners issued a white paper in January with its recommendations; it seems their suggestions would be a good place to start.

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