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Monday, February 09, 2009

A-Roid Roils Debate

Good thing that there was no non-disciplinary and anonymous survey testing of horses for steroids in 2003. Who knows how many positives could be surfacing now. If it was ever reported that any of these horses were on steroids, would it diminish their accomplishments? Albany Times-Union blogger Mark McGuire wrote in his 2nd and Short blog:

With so many of the era’s stars now at least linked to steroid use, it’s going to be difficult to contextualize these guys among the all-time greats.
He's talking of course about baseball, but don't you think it could apply to racing if old samples were found?

The news on Alex Rodriguez was all over the front pages on Sunday; I'm ever-amazed by the obsession over the whole subject of steroids in baseball by the press and law enforcement alike. I wonder if fans and the public-at-large would care that much if not prodded to do so. Our buddy William C. Rhoden had a thoughtful column on the matter the other day.

The publicity, and I don't think it's a stretch to describe it instead as hysteria, about A-Rod, or A-Roid, as he will now forever be known, is further illustration of why racing had no choice but to move to ban the drugs, even as there are presumably more pressing drug problems. Steroids have been reported to benefit a horse in its training, helping to maintain a good appetite and coat color, rather than to juice a horse for a particular race. They're also easily tested for. This all as opposed to blood doping agents which directly enhance an athlete's stamina and which need to be tested out-of-competition. However, given the current atmosphere, steroids had to be the priority, and had to go right away.

It seems funny that Lasix, which might just be the most enhancing-performance drug of all, is such an accepted part of American racing culture at this point that we don't even hear much discussion of it at all. It's been that way, really, ever since New York leveled the playing field by legalizing its use. Imagine how many horses we'd have trouble contextualizing if Lasix ever became half as stigmatized as steroids are.

I read a very interesting comment in Dave Litfin's column in the Form on Saturday, in which he discussed what he perceives to be the death of the inner track speed bias (which I always considered to be overrated).
So, what's going on? There have been significant changes this winter: a) a new track superintendent; b) the elimination of mud calks; and c) more stringent guidelines for the use of steroids. Any or all of those factors might contribute to explaining the seismic shift in how the inner track has played; but whatever the synergy, this has not been the inner track speed handicappers have known and loved for the last three decades. [DRF Plus (sub. only)]
While a) and b) are expected explanations, I was surprised to read Litfin speculate about steroids in this particular context; that's not something I've read in the past. However, I subsequently found this quote from trainer Christophe Clement in the Saratogian last month.
“Many trainers would give their horses steroids as a matter of course and then build them up going into a big race. In a country where the racing programme is dominated by speed these training methods have had a great effect on the results and the type of horses who were winning. From next year in most states, racing is going to be different.”
Of course, it has to be far too early in the game to reach any conclusions about the new rules as of yet. Another thing we've been seeing a lot of recently is horses breaking down - rashes of fatalities at Santa Anita, Fair Grounds, and Turfway, and a few at Aqueduct too - on tracks synthetic and real. If we can speculate about a change in the game as profound as Clement and Litfin do, is it unfair or unreasonable to suggest that the same change may be contributing to the injuries too? Just thought I'd ask.


Anonymous said...

Sterods are bad for horses. Unnatural muscle develops where it shouldn't, too much weight for the bone structure, infertility issues that are often unreverseable and an enhanced feeling like they can run like the wind, yes right through the pains. This is acceptable to you Alan? Perhaps those horses on steroids that would never think about the pain, therefore never runing off stride (big breakdown factor running off balance or awkwardly) during a race because of the "roid-rage" would be the ones that would go back to their stalls, lay down and sometimes be some race lame that they couldn't get back up. Our industry does a good job hiding those post race breakdowns where the horse never runs again because they didn't happen on the track.

Anonymous said...

If a horse has an inflammatory condition, or needs to add muscle mass, or needs to "keep its head in the feed tub", it shouldn't be raced "through" the condition, masked with 'Roids and pain killers. Illness and injuries are best served with the time honored tradition of actual rest and rehabilitation. A horse should be able to feel pain and telegraph it to the trainer and especially, the rider, whose life depends on it. I wonder how many breakdowns, irrespective of surface, could have been avoided if the horse simply pulled itself up the minute it felt something off?
Why are performance-enhancing drugs unacceptable in every other sport but this one?

Anonymous said...

Performance enhancing drugs are no more prevalent or acceptable in this sport than any other. You are kidding yourself if you think the other sports are clean.

Bute is an anti inflamatory, something every human athlete uses legally.

Lasix is a diuretic, used by human athletes to mask other drugs, and by trainers to reduce lung bleeding and yes, by some, to mask illegal drugs. It does indirectly enhance performance by letting the horse breathe, which is considered therapuetic by the veterinary community. It does not help in humans the same way.

I would prefer they both be banned, but to say they are more accepted in racing is incorrect.

Anonymous said...

"Performance enhancing drugs are no more prevalent or acceptable in this sport than any other. You are kidding yourself if you think the other sports are clean."

Um, beg to differ. I'm not kidding myself thinking other sports are clean at all, i.e., Rodriguez' current PR problem.
My point was that horse racing has taken FAR longer to even begin to regulate/test for steroid abuse, along with other medications, despite their being "legal." An admission to the abuse problem existing is the first step, and at the beginning of the debate on regulation and stringent testing protocols, many racing jurisdictions couldn't even come to terms on the issue that 'roids are performance enhancing. Frankly, if a horse can't breathe effectively or bleeds without diuretics, perhaps it should be given a different job that's less stressful.
Meds are more accepted in racing, because the recipients don't get a say in the matter, unlike other sports.

Anonymous said...

"Contextualize"? Must be a public school graduate.

Amateurcapper said...

First off, I believe that the horse's accomplishments cannot be diminished. They have no final decisions about what they eat or are medicated with. Anonymous made this point.

It is the legacies of the owners and trainers of the last 10-15 years that horse racing would be loathe to taint. I have a list of miraculous turnarounds that look quite suspicious. I correctly identified ROGER CLEMENS to my co-workers, clients, friends before he was even mentioned in the Mitchell report. It makes for good conversation and a few slaps on the back. Being correct didn't make me proud. It showed that common sense and research can be the start of a hypothesis. Identifying the horses in question will do no good for a sport that already has too many scars.

It's time to move forward. Without a commissioner and a true national body to unify horse racing, it will not happen.

"...maintain a good appetite and coat color?" To think that steroids were used only to improve appetite and help with coat color is naive. That's just what trainers and vets have sold you and the rest of the peripheral horse racing community.

How about turning the horse out when this happens??? Better yet, turn the horse out BEFORE it happens so it won't take as long to recover from whatever is ailing them. Let the horse be a horse for a few months. Chances are, appetite is lost to tell the caretakers something's wrong. However, there's far too much money at stake so trainers used painkillers and/or steroids to keep horses running.

As for Lasix, that drug will never go away. The presence of this diuretic is the beacon to the rest of the world that horse racing in the U.S. is where the "bleeders" can be sold and become someone else's problem. The game here is the "minor league" where they can ship a horse to steal a purse.

Finally, the rash of breakdowns is caused by HUMAN ERROR manifest in three ways, two are directly controlled by trainers/owners:
1. Injury or illness in evolution that cannot be detected by tests, equipment or experience. There is no such thing as "perfect".
2. Inexperience of the caretakers, missing a sign or symptom that would clue into injury and/or illness. An error of omission.
3. Greed...keeping a horse running for that next check. The most grievous crime for the game...and error of comission. The sentence is served by the equine, not the human.

Anonymous said...

I just have to argue with the connection of "rash of breakdowns" and Santa Anita. Yes, Santa Anita had a bad opening week. But where is the press now? Santa Anita had zero racing fatalities for the entire month of January. Zero. How may at Aqueduct?