Week in Review: ‘What’s more important? Winning at all costs or your dignity?’

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Mark Casse | Coady Photo

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Trainer Mark Casse and the other class of 2020 inductees to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame will have to wait another year to give their official acceptance speeches because the COVID-19 pandemic postponed this year’s ceremony.

But on Sunday, as a panelist among globally recognized trainers at the 68th annual Round Table Conference hosted remotely by The Jockey Club, Casse spoke with passion in a wide-ranging discussion that touched on problems plaguing the sport from a trainer’s perspective. The words he uttered might not have been exactly what he would have come up with to commemorate his Hall of Fame induction, but they resonated with enough candor and emotion to show why Casse rates as a world-class horseman and spot-on spokesperson for the sport.

For context, the three panelists (four-time champion British flat trainer John Gosden and top Irish flat and steeplechase conditioner Jessica Harrington joined Casse on the virtual dais) were discussing the issue of race-day Lasix when Casse widened the scope of the talk with a bigger-picture segue:

“There’s a lot bigger problems out there in the U.S. than Lasix,” Casse said. “And it has to be fixed. Personally, I’m so fed up with it I question how long I want to continue to even train. [As trainers] we’re not sending a man or a woman to the moon. We’re not rocket scientists. But we see crazy things happening often, and I commend The Jockey Club,” and other investigators that helped to indict 27 trainers, veterinarians, pharmacists and drug distributors on doping charges earlier this year.

“I mean, everybody knew things weren’t right. And it turned out we found that. And I felt better. I appreciate that. I thought it was one of the greatest things The Jockey Club could do. I hope they don’t stop there, because there are more bad apples out there. And I think when they find the bad apples, they don’t need to be slapped on the hand. They need to be thrown out and be done with…

“So much of what’s happened, especially recently, is I think with the younger generation there’s not as many horsemen. They’re more [the type to use] drugs, and we’ve got to get away from that. It’s not good for our industry in any shape or form. My one concern is this, and I’ve seen it up close and personal: We make rules. [And] we can make all the rules in the world, but if there’s not somebody out there policing those rules, the bad guys just get that much stronger… I’m not going to do anything to cross the line. But there’s many, many out there that will. It’s a disadvantage to us, and it’s not fair to the men and women that want to play by the rules.

“I have a 17-year-old son. And I was recently elected to the Hall of Fame,” Casse articulated in a humble tone, choosing his words carefully. “He said, ‘Dad, what’s that mean?’ I said, ‘That means you can do things right and still get it done with dignity. Because through this game, you’re going to have to decide what’s more important–winning at all costs or your dignity?'”

The more things change (or not)…

It’s no shocker that illicit drugs were at the forefront of The Jockey Club’s Round Table presentation on Sunday. But what is surprising is how long the topic has been a central theme at the annual event. The Jockey Club publishes online transcripts of every Round Table dating to 1953, and I wanted to go back and see when the very first reference to doping came up for discussion.

I didn’t have to search too long and hard. “Doping” popped up on page 8 of the July 1, 1953, transcript. It was the fourth topic of discussion at the very first Round Table.

For that initial pow-wow, 18 titans of the turf were presented with a prepared list of 35 questions that they pondered (presumably while seated at an actual round table) at the Park Avenue offices of The Jockey Club in New York City. Some of the queries seem quaintly dated: “Is the scale of weights fair in the fall?” was the first order of business. Others included “What can be done to discourage the excessive use of lead ponies in the parade to the post?” “Should spurs be prohibited?” and “Do grooms and other stable help have to sleep in the stables?”

But question No. 4, “Should the use of hormones and vitamins be allowed?” drew four printed pages of debate. Selected responses follow. Some of the views will surprise you. Others could be cut-and-pasted from 1953 right into the same dialogue in 2020.

Ogden Phipps: “It seems to me we’ve had the question of doping for a great many years and it certainly was very bad and injurious to the horse in the good old days when narcotics were given. Then we passed a rule that no stimulant should be given to the horse. We employed methods to check on the honesty of the people and we thought we had checks sufficient to apprehend anybody who did stimulate. It has come up lately that because we have no quantitative analysis, anything such as hormones, vitamins or adrenalin[e] can be given to the horse and we have no way of telling whether it has been administered or not. A great many trainers are doing this now, and is it fair to the ones who are sticking to the letter of the law? Also, hormones, vitamins and adrenalin[e], which are parts of the body of the horse’s secretions, probably do not injure the horse.”

A.B. Hancock Jr.: “I disagree. I’d rather they go back to hopping than using the hormones on mares… We’re having more slips and everything else and I can’t attribute it to anything in the world except the use of male hormones to drive a mare out of season while she’s racing.”

Hirsch Jacobs: “I’ve tried vitamins, all kinds of vitamins, and the more I try them, the less races I win. But the average person, if the horse improves, thinks that the vitamins did it.”

Marshall Cassidy: “I think that possibly the thing that racing is concerned with is the fact that the unscrupulous get by with certain stimulations that are not detectable and people who are scrupulous and won’t do anything wrong are forbidden certain of these body-building drugs that are used with human beings. The question is whether there isn’t some way or some rule which may be written which precludes the use of narcotics and certain specified drugs, rather than all drugs. No one wants to ease up the rule so people can hop horses. But does the rule go too far or does it not?”

John Hay Whitney: “It seems to me there’s still a very real distinction between administering vitamins and hormones as medication and as a stimulant. We are talking about a massive dose in one case administered certainly by hypodermic injection. And I don’t see how you could possibly ever agree that was admissible, because as Arthur Hancock suggested, that is injurious to the animal and certainly would give an unfair advantage to those who are doing it and actually defrauding the public. We’re back to the age-old problem of how do you prevent stimulation by means of narcotic or any other commodity, which is a policing job, it seems to me, rather than one that a rule could possibly cover.”

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