Most horse owners, trainers, bettors and fans perceive that the widespread use of illegal drugs is ruining the sport. Yet for years, leaders and regulators of the thoroughbred industry have failed to address the problem in any meaningful way.
Drugs, including concoctions aimed at speeding muscle recovery, have debased the wonderful game of handicapping. Bettors now routinely place more emphasis on the identity of the trainer than the ability of the horse -- understandably so, when miracle-working trainers transform horses overnight and achieve winning percentages that defy all historical precedents.
Drugs have made it as difficult to cheer for racing's champions as it is to root for Barry Bonds. Top horses may owe their success to an unscrupulous veterinarian as well as to their own innate talent.
The failure of the racing industry to deal with its drug problem is due partly to its fear that a crackdown would generate bad publicity and hurt the sport. When trainers have been caught in California in recent years, the state's racing board settled the cases behind the scenes -- and without tough penalties.
In view of the sport's long history of ineffectiveness in dealing with drugs, a pair of recent events is noteworthy. Kentucky and California -- two of the major racing jurisdictions in the country where the abuse of drugs has often seemed out of control -- have made significant efforts to turn the tide. Kentucky has long had the most liberal medication policies in the world; the use of painkillers legal in the Blue Grass State would get a trainer thrown out of the sport in other countries. So many drugs are permissible that their presence in a horse's system presumably makes the detection of illegal drugs doubly difficult. But last week Kentucky abruptly changed its philosophy.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) had reconstituted the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, and the board voted to reduce the number of legal medications and institute new procedures to detect cheating. For the first time, the anti-drug forces overrode the arguments of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and veterinarians who advocate wide-open medication policies. An even more dramatic turnabout occurred in California, the state that has more miracle-working trainers and deeply cynical bettors than any jurisdiction in the nation.
"The legitimate people were sick of it," said Barry Irwin, managing partner of the Team Valor racing stable, which pulled most its horses out of California because of the apparently widespread cheating. "The sport has been going down the drain."
Abundant evidence indicated that many trainers were administering what are referred to as milkshakes to horses -- delivering bicarbonate through tubes into their stomachs to retard the buildup of lactic acid that causes fatigue. The California tracks began testing to detect the use of alkalizing agents and instituted a novel system to deal with offenders. Trainers guilty of a first offense can be compelled, for a 30-day period, to send their horses to a detention barn 24 hours before they race. There the animals are under scrutiny that prevents them from receiving any illegal treatments. With the new policy, nothing was swept under the rug; the names of the milkshakers have been made public.
A horse trained by Jeff Mullins, who ranks second in wins at California's Santa Anita track, was caught with a violation. So was a horse trained by Julio Canani, trainer of Eclipse Award winner Sweet Catomine, and horses under the guidance of two other trainers, Adam Kitchingman and Vladimir Cerin. Since the detention system went into effect at Santa Anita in mid-February, Daily Racing Digest, a California publication, has maintained a "Milkshake Watch," chronicling the performance of trainers whose horses have been in detention, and none has been performing any miracles. Mullins's record is been especially eye-catching. He has won two of 28 starts at Santa Anita since his horses were placed in detention.
The California system may suggest that the best way to police the sport is to require that all horses go to a detention barn 24 hours before they race. Certainly, the traditional method -- testing horses after they race -- hasn't worked because the cheaters always stay a step ahead of the chemists. With effective tests for milkshakes in force, trainers looking for an edge will move on to something else. (According to racetrack scuttlebutt, some are treating horses with a painkiller 1,000 times as strong as morphine: the venom of the Conus snail, found in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.)
Instead of depending on chemists to develop tests for snail venom and other illegal substances, the sport could forestall much cheating by putting horses under strict surveillance before they compete. Most trainers -- even the honest ones -- don't like the idea of taking horses out of their normal environment before a race. Racetrack owners worry about the cost of implementing such a system. But the drug problem in racing constitutes a crisis that demands some difficult choices. Perhaps the developments in Kentucky and California signify that the industry is ready to make them.