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Friday, April 10, 2009

A Tale of Two Tales

Of the two news stories which have roiled the racing world this week, I think that, despite the rightful furor in the press over the outrageous conditions at Ernie Paragallo's farm, the incident involving Jeff Mullins in the Aqueduct detention barn is clearly the more significant in terms of the issues which are symptomatic of the woes presently dogging the industry.

I strongly disagree with those who seek to gloss over Mullins' "oversight" as no big deal, an innocent error involving a relatively harmless substance. If trainers are held responsible for medication incidents that take place in far off corners of their training empire where they were not even present (and rightfully so in my mind), then they are certainly responsible to familiarize themselves with the basic rules governing each and every track they visit, as distasteful as a jurisdiction which isolates horses for six hours before each race might be to Jeff Mullins. And, regarding the cough medicine that he sought to administer, why, I continue to ask, would he need to give it to a horse who wasn't coughing? As Joe Mahoney of the Racing and Wagering Board said, “If a horse needs Air Power to get to the finish line on race day, then we have a problem with that." And I think you can substitute nearly anything for 'Air Power' in that statement. Even more than an illustration of the continuing problem of medication, the incident is a further indication of the cavalier attitude that some horsemen continue to harbor toward the rules, even in the face of growing scrutiny in the blogosphere, press, political circles and, by extension, the general public.

The situation at Paragallo's Center Brook farm is nothing less than bizarre. It's a tragedy for the horses and humans involved alike; that's right, I find Paragallo to be a somewhat sympathetic figure here too, at least at this stage. Perhaps I'm being naive, but I can't imagine that this man willfully attempted to starve his horses to death. Instead, he comes across to me as simply pathetic; a man who, for whatever reason (we just don't know why as of yet), neglected his responsibilities, lost total control of his farm and animals, and now faces jail time for an offense which, while inexcusable given the vast number of living beings who depended on him for basic subsistence, involved, in my view, far less malicious intent than many who serve meaningless time or escape incarceration altogether. While most if not all of the horses involved will, in time, make a full recovery, Paragallo's life will likely never be the same. I just don't think we're yet in a position to reach a final judgment on him as of yet. Perhaps, in the end, I'll eat my words above.

I also believe that this matter, as opposed to the ongoing fight against illegal medications (and those presently legal as well), is an aberration. One of the reasons that the story seems so shocking is that we haven't heard of anything like it in this industry. In Bill Finley's kneejerk and unnecessary "ban the bum for life" column on ESPN.com, he had to go back some 26 years to find a case which even just slightly resembled what we're reading about today.

To me, this is less a story about horse racing than one simply about animal neglect and abuse, a topic we read about all of the time. It should probably be on page 11 of the news section rather than on page 1 of the sports section. However, racing reporters such as Joe Drape of the Times are just doing their jobs, and a fine one at that.

But by it being a horse racing story rather than one of many animal abuse stories, it invites commentaries by mainstream writers who know nothing about the sport, and who use it to jump on the bandwagon and add to the beating the industry has suffered in the last year. Take for example this ignorant blog posting on the US News and World Report site which states that the Jockey Club has "licensed breeders" and that it should "severely limit the number of horses breeders can bring into the world each year." Once we start to get people like that telling us how to run our business, then this industry has trouble even beyond what it's experiencing today.

9 Comments:

rather rapid said...

Alan I believe you will see trainers continue to fight "stupid" rules. I've never used Air Power and thus am unfamiliar with its affects. I do understand that many many horses have trouble with their breathing apparatus. If Air Power helps them with this, then Air Power or other similar aids,instead of being a performance enhancer, merely enables the horse to perform. Instead of being the case that the horse needs the substance to get to the finish line, the horse may need the substance simply to be a race horse. More horses then the fan in the stands is aware of are in this position. Consider additionally the situation or dilema of the trainer faced with retiring a beloved animal to the slaughter house or to the usual neglect of OTB(see lesser versions of Paragallo), or alternatively giving it something to allow it to continue to race (and live) a little while longer. Things are less clear than they seem at first blush.

alan said...

rapid - Thanks for the comment, hope everything is going well. I'm not opposed to Air Power, just to it being given to a horse in an area and at a time which was clearly against the rules (assuming that that's what Mullins really had).

Lemme ask you something, not at all meant to be antagonistic, just curious. Would you consider any steroids to be in the class of "instead of being a performance enhancer, merely enables the horse to perform?"

Anonymous said...

The main ingrediant in air power is used as an anesthetic in horses, so in addition to allow them to breath (which enhances performance) it would logically mask pain.

Splitting hairs over performance enhancing vs. therapeutic gets a little tedious. If a drug or treatment masks an inherant weakness in a horse, whethar it be in the breathing apparatus or a limb, if enhances performance.

But none of this matters in Mullins case, he admittedly was in violation of the rules, and claiming ignorance is not a defense.

In fact, both Mullins and Paragallo are using ignorance as an excuse, in Mullins' case the facts are clear (assuming nothing else is found in the container), in Paragallo's case he needs to prove he actually was paying to feed these animals and that a third party either stole the money or just failed to feed them for some bizarre reason, or else he is looking at jail time.

rather rapid said...

Alan, to reply. I'm other than an expert on steroids, but have asked the experts, including a body builder in our building who used steroids for years. From what I hear there is zero doubt that steroids are powerful performance enhancers that affect strength and endurance(more strength available for same distance). Even after their withdrawal, prior adminstration permits the horse to train more efficiently, and harder up to the event (provided the trainer gives the work). Anabolics these days, as opposed to times past, are so efficient that they can be "targeted" by being given a couple of times per month. They can also be targeted so that they fail to test on race day. What racing needs imo is a "ban" instead of testing. They ban cobra venom. They should ban steroids.

In response to the other comment, I'd think there is a huge difference between performance enhancing substances and therapeutic substances. No one that has ever trained a horse (or should say, except the very few irrational agenda sorts) would deprive a horse of therapeutics. Unfortunately, this dispute will only grow. Anabolics are unnecessary now days because we have perfectly legal substances,primarily proteins stacked in various combos that will definitely enhance performance. So, where does nutrition end and illegal performance enhancement begin will be the question after all our trainers start reading Muscle and Fitness Magazine.

equestrian054 said...

I think one of the worst things about the Paragallo sitiation (and racing in general) is the horses that ended up taking in Canadian slaughterhouses. It seems to me that these athletes who work so hard for us deserve a better end than that. The industry really should do more to correct this problem.

rather rapid said...

Alan--also make you aware of opinion of then leading standardbred trainer,driver Fred Kersley as quoted in Ross Staaden's 1990 book Winning Trainers. Anabolics were rampant in Australia before they were banned in 1988. Kersley experimented with them and quit using them. He says to the effect that anabolics made his horse look and feel better but not necessarily run faster. Seems that opinion would carry some weight since SBs race weekly and Kersley drove in 10s of thousands of races against anabolic users. I believe Kersley's is a misanalysis but interesting on a practical level.

Erin said...

While I agree that the Paragallo incident is an aberration, I do think that as owner of the farm he should be held fully responsible (whether employees were pocketing feed money or not), and that regardless of what the legal system does, he should be banned from racing. He has had enough chances. He brings nothing good image-wise to the game. The stalls he fills and dollars he injects to the industry aren't worth the cost to racing, racehorses, or racing's image.

Racing needs to disassociate itself with this man. Whether he is sorta guilty or really guilty is immaterial in many people's minds, and either way this is racing's chance to send a very important message. I couldn't believe the misinformation in the articles linked to in the Power Cap blog. The idea of racing making a whipping boy out of him is a shame as it's not truly fair nor something that connotes integrity, but I can't say that for Paragallo's sake I mind one bit. And he wouldn't be a whipping boy if racing would toughen its standards across the board (starting will Mullins perhaps).

If only this entity "racing" actually was a singular organization, with teeth. As is pointed out every time there's problem in "racing"...

Erin said...

re: Air Power, rather rapid your point is well taken. However, in an ideal world we'd not race horses who needed such therapeutics to perform, so as to not then breed them, and perpetuate the need for therapeutics.

Of course, putting such idealism into practice for the benefit of the future means losing a competitive edge or even a competitor today, and no single trainer can be expected to do that. Once again - we need a single governing body, with teeth, to make uniform policy.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that I see how using medication that "enables the horse to perform" is appropriate or any different than any other banned substance. A horse unable to perform should not perform. Therapeutic substances should be used when otherwise sound horses have an ailment or temporary condition and need the substance to heal. In my view, if they need medication as a matter of course simply to compete, then they shouldn't be competing.