Horse Doping Reigns in the Sport of Kings

A look at the drugs and breeding practices that make the Preakness.

This Saturday, Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another will join a field of a dozen young colts at Pimlico Race Course, in Baltimore, for a chance to win $1 million and a shot at the coveted Triple Crown. As they take their places at the gate, these majestic creatures, and the jockeys riding them, can count themselves part of a noble and enduring tradition—one that remains practically unchanged from ancient times but for one major exception: Most, if not all, of the thoroughbreds running in the 137th Preakness Stakes will be under the influence of at least one performance-enhancing drug.

As unsportsmanlike as that may sound, it is hardly unusual for the sport of kings—although there is an increasingly vocal minority of veterinarians, breeders, owners and jockeys who would like to see it otherwise.

In some cases, the doping involves administering illegal substances, such as anabolic steroids, snake venom (a natural painkiller), and “milkshakes” of sodium bicarbonate, water and sugar that are force-fed into a horse’s stomach through its nose. According to the New York Times, 18 of the top 20 U.S. thoroughbred trainers have been cited at some point in their careers for illegal doping. (Doug O’Neill, who trains I’ll Have Another, has himself been sanctioned repeatedly over the years.)

Yet more often than not, the drugs horses receive are completely legitimate, despite the fact that they are administered just hours prior to race time and have a measurable effect on how long and how fast the animals can run. That’s because unlike almost every other country that hosts the sport, the U.S. maintains notoriously lax regulations governing pre-race doping.

By far the two most common legal race-day drugs are furosemide—a loop-diuretic that is sold under the brand name Lasix and, according to the Jockey Club, is administered to nearly 95 percent of all starters—and phenylbutazone, or “bute,” an anti-inflammatory used to dull pain. According to some equine experts, feeding drugs like Lasix and bute to racing horses is not only anti-competitive, it’s potentially dangerous. For instance, Lasix—which vets use to limit a condition called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (or “bleeding”) that occurs in overworked horses—leeches potassium from the body, a condition known as hypokalemia that is known to cause osteoporosis and brittle bones. Proponents of Lasix claim it is inhumane to run a horse that is bleeding from the nose when there is medication available to stop it. But regulatory officials in countries like Hong Kong and France have a better idea: If a horse is a consistent bleeder, it simply shouldn’t be racing.

Painkillers, meanwhile, allow an animal to run through an injury—something football players do all the time, only they do it by choice. Injuries masked by painkillers are the most common cause of horses “breaking down” mid-race, experts say; and according to Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, nearly 90 percent of horses who need to be put down after experiencing musculoskeletal injuries were already injured when they took the field.

“Racing fatality rates in the U.S. are two- to three-times higher than other major racing countries that don’t allow phenylbutazone and other drugs,” said Arthur, speaking at a 2010 Jockey Club conference. “My international colleagues have no doubt our medication policies, especially in phenylbutazone, are the cause of this disparity. I’m not convinced it is that simple, but there is no question medication regulation is the most glaring difference between U.S. and other major racing countries.”

Horses aren’t the only ones getting hurt. Last September, legendary jockey Jacky Martin was paralyzed from the neck down when the horse he was riding broke down at the finish line of Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. Martin, who is known as perhaps the best quarter horse jockey that ever lived, will likely never walk again.

The dark side of horse racing has been getting a lot of attention lately, thanks to an exhaustive investigative report published at the end of March by the Times that found that despite averaging fewer starts than ever, horses are breaking down at an astonishing rate at state-regulated race tracks across the United States. Horses are racing less, but getting hurt more. I’d call that an ominous sign.

Times reporters Walt Bogdanich and Joe Drape analyzed thousands of records and found that over the past three years more than 3,500 horses have died at U.S. race tracks or have had to be put down after suffering irreparable injuries. An average of two dozen race horses die every week at state-sanctioned tracks, the reporters learned.

This is hardly the first time scrutiny has fallen on the racing industry. Back in 2008, Congress called hearings to examine the safety of thoroughbred racing after Eight Belles—a three-year-old filly—broke both front ankles running the Kentucky Derby and had to be put down on the track in front of more than 100,000 spectators. Two years later, Senator Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, and Rep. Edward Whitfield, a Republican congressman from Kentucky, reviewed data from several racing groups and determined that the sport is suffering from a lack of uniform oversight. There is no equivalent of the National Football League in horse racing, nor is there a federal agency with the power to deliver a sweeping mandate for reform. Instead, 38 different jurisdictions and racing organizations are in charge of policing their own regulations, which helps explain why a drug like Lasix is a no-no for juvenile horses in the Breeders Cup, but is still allowed in the Derby and the Preakness.

In the wake of the recent Times report, lawmakers are once again looking into the problem of doping and track safety, and they now have strong allies in the racing community. At the end of April, the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee held a hearing at Unionville High School in Chester County—chaired by Republican Rep. Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania—to look into doping and its effects on horses and jockeys. Pitts is one of 16 co-sponsors to the House version of the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act of 2011, which was introduced last May and would ban all drugs in a horse’s system on the day it races. The bill has received strong support from Chester County breeders Roy and Gretchen Jackson—the owners of Lael Stables—whose horse Barbaro received an outpouring of international affection after shattering his leg in the 2006 Preakness. (Barbaro was running on Lasix, although there is no proof it directly contributed to his break down.)

Earlier this month, the Jockey Club joined the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association to form an organization called Clean Horse Racing to lobby for race-day medication reform.

But drugs aren’t the only problem. Modern race horses are bred to maximize traits that make them fast, at the expense of those that make them strong. This produces animals with abnormally slim ankles and large chests to hold overworked lungs and hearts. (Picture a half-ton animal barreling down a track at more than 30 miles an hour supported by ankle bones that are slimmer than a human wrist.)

As retired jockey Randall Meier put it in an interview with the Times: “Before it seemed like people wanted to breed a horse that would last longer, now they want the best horse for a short time.”

Horses are designed to run, and anyone who has ever been on one knows they love doing it. But the lure of quick cash and the absence of rules banning race-day doping is undermining the integrity of horse racing in the United States. It’s time the U.S. followed the lead of the international community and made racing a clean sport. The lives of horses and jockeys depends on it.