By Kevin Blake
Last week, this space discussed and theorised about the potential impact of drugs that seek to enhance the peak performance levels of racehorses (click here). Unsurprisingly, the piece generated quite a bit of comment given just how hot a topic performance-enhancing drugs in sport is right now. However, while drugs such as anabolic steroids and cobalt chloride that bid to enhance peak performance levels are the ones that many people fear the most, horse racing arguably has far bigger problems with another medication-related issue, that of an over-reliance on and abuse of therapeutic medications.
Rather than seeking to enhance peak performance levels, therapeutic medications are legal drugs that are permitted to be used to alleviate pain/inflammation and/or promote healing in horses. While regulations differ across the racing world, the majority of racing nations have withdrawal periods of various lengths for these medications. A withdrawal period of a medication is the recommended amount of time that should be allowed between it being administered to a horse and when that horse runs in a race. Giving a medication to a horse closer to a race than the recommended withdrawal time risks the failure of a post-race drug test.
When used responsibly and ethically, therapeutic medications are in the best interests of horse welfare and are a significant aid to racehorse trainers. However, given their proven benefits and legitimate status, there are widespread fears that it has become worryingly common for these medications to be abused to keep unsound horses training and racing.
While the issue of over-use of therapeutic medications is a concern across most of the racing world, it is arguably the most pressing in America, as the medication rules there allow for much more aggressive usage. For example, while the common pain-relief medication phenylbutazone, more commonly known as bute, has a withdrawal period of seven days in Great Britain and Ireland, it can be used up to 24 hours before a race in America. One of the most talked-about medications in world racing is furosemide (Lasix) and while it has a withdrawal period of two days in Great Britain and Ireland, it can be used up to four hours before a race in America.
Lasix may grab most of the headlines in this debate, but perhaps even more concerning is the use of corticosteroid joint injections. These are injections used to treat pain and swelling caused by joint disease and arthritis. While they are a perfectly legitimate medication when used responsibly, there are widespread fears that they are being used far more liberally than is recommended in a bid to keep unsound horses training and racing. The dangers of giving strong pain relief to horses with serious joint issues and asking them to train and race should be obvious to all, as not only is it likely to lead to those physical problems worsening, it can also lead to catastrophic breakdowns.
Again, America somewhat stands out from the pack with regard to withdrawal periods for this sort of medication. While Great Britain and Ireland have withdrawal periods of 14 days for intra-articular use of corticosteroids such as triamcinolone acetonide, betamethasone and methylprednisolone, the withdrawal periods for those substances in America are just seven days.
The arguments in favour of therapeutic medications are that they help keep the sport on the road by keeping horses sound enough to perform. If this is the case, one would have expected that the advances made in veterinary science in recent decades and the widespread use of therapeutic medications would have resulted in healthier horses that race more often, but the facts reveal an altogether more worrying truth.
America is perhaps the best example to use given that its therapeutic medication rules are the most permissive among major racing nations. According to statistics from the Jockey Club Fact Book, in 1960 the average number of starts per horse per year was 11.31. Despite all of the advances in veterinary treatments since then, by 2015 the number of average starts per horse per year had almost halved to 6.18. It is worth noting that the average stayed steady from 1950 to 1975, but went into a downward spiral thereafter. What happened in America around 1975? Lasix had begun to be made legal in states all around the country.
Of course, there are likely to be other contributing factors to these statistics, most notably changes in how American trainers condition and campaign their horses. However, while one might have thought that racing less frequently, coupled with apparent positive advances in veterinary science, would lead to horses having longer careers, the figures again tell a different story. Horses born in America in 1976 went on to have an average number of 28.55 starts in their racing career. Horses born in 2004 went on to have an average of 17.46 starts in their career. The differences are startling, and when one thinks about why this has happened, the ever-increasing reliance on medication has to be one of the main topics of discussion.
All of this isn’t just concerning from a horse welfare perspective. Widespread exposure of aggressive medication use in racing has the potential to see the sport lose public support. While the public can accept a human athlete making a choice to medicate themselves, even if it isn’t in the best interests of their long-term health, it is far more difficult to justify such actions in horse racing as the horse doesn’t get a choice in the matter. The furore that followed the injury and retirement of Triple Crown-bound I’ll Have Another and subsequent release of his medication records is an example of the type of public relations nightmares that such permissive medication rules invite on the sport.
Furthermore, this issue also has potentially serious ramifications for the Thoroughbred breed. It can readily be argued that a proliferation of medications that help to mask unsoundness will inevitably lead to unsound horses succeeding enough on the racecourse to pass their defective genes onto the next generation in the breeding shed. Perhaps this has already been a factor in aforementioned trend for American horses to race less frequently and have shorter careers?
An example to follow in regard to attitude to medication and breeding-industry standards is the German method. In Germany, stallions are declared ‘approved’ or ‘not approved’ in the stud book. To be an approved stallion, the horse has to have achieved an appropriately high level of form on the track, he must be well conformed and has to be free of any heritable congenital defects. Most importantly for this discussion, he cannot have ever been administered any artificial medication such as bute or Lasix at any stage of his life.
The benefits of standing approved stallions in Germany are significant, as foals sired by an approved stallion are eligible for German breeder premiums which are 30% of prize-money for 2-year-old and 3-year-old races and 20% of prize-money for older horses. Such is the importance of these premiums, approved stallions are much more strongly supported than non-approved stallions and this has yielded lucrative long-term dividends in almost two decades since the standards were introduced.
Despite Germany’s breeding industry being small by international standards–with just 1,425 broodmares in Germany in 2014, compared to 12,909 in Ireland, 20,353 in Australia and 37,150 in America–German-breds consistently punch above their weight in terms of global influence.
There is no better example of the German influence on international racing than the rise of Monsun into one of the finest sires on the planet. He sired the likes of Manduro, Novellist and Protectionist, all of whom were bred from German families and were trained in Germany to win top-class races all over the world. German breeding can also be found high up in the female lines of pedigrees of international stars such as Animal Kingdom, who was out of a mare that was bred and raced in Germany.
As discussed last week, the Thoroughbred racehorse has been selectively bred for over 300 years to become a truly remarkable racing machine. Decades-long stagnation of track-record times suggest that the breed has reached the fullness of its genetic potential. Thus, perhaps the time has come for racing nations around the world to reduce what for many has become a reliance on veterinary intervention.
This can be achieved by banning all raceday medications, lengthening withdrawal periods of permitted therapeutic medications and perhaps even introducing Germanic-style standards for stallions. Such moves will not be popular in the short term, but all concerned would soon adapt and the big winner would be the long-term health of this treasured breed and the mainstream reputation of our great game.