The Maryland Racing Commission is almost certain to ban the use of all medications on thoroughbreds who race at the state's tracks.
Members of the commission met yesterday at Laurel Race Course with their counterparts from Pennsylvania and West Virginia and issued a statement saying they would work to establish uniform programs prohibiting the use of drugs. Maryland's commission will hold a hearing Nov. 15 and will probably take action swifty after that.
A ban would prohibit the use of the two drugs now legal in Maryland: Butazolidin and Lasix. Bute is a powerful analgesic and painkiller. Lasix is a diuretic that helps horses who bleed from the nostrils and suffer respiratory problems but which also may mask the presence of illegal drugs in a horse's postrace urinalysis.
"The intent of the medication program has been abused so much that it is hard to justify," said Robert W. Banning, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission. "This has been a cloud that has been hanging over racing, and we felt we had to take a look at our position."
Such doubts about the wisdom of using drugs on horses represent a drastic change from the mid-1970s, when racing commissions across the country were enacting "permissive medication" programs. Horsemen and veterinarians were testifying about the efficacy of drugs like Butazolidin, saying that horses needed them to withstand the demands of year-round racing.
But the use of these medications often was accompanied by abuse of illegal drugs, powerful narcotics like Sublimaze and Stadol.Chemists found it practically impossible to detect these drugs in the urine of horses who had been given Bute, Lasix or some of the countless other drugs that were now being legalized. An Illinois chemist said the task was "like throwing a grain of salt into a 55-gallon drum, filling it with trash and garbage and then trying to retrieve the single grain."
Despite the problems they caused the chemist, opposition to these drugs was mild until the afternoon of May 3, 1978. That day, a mare named Easy Edith broke down at Pimlico, setting off a chain-reaction, four-horse spill that killed jockey Robert Pineda.
Easy Edith had been treated with Bute.Critics of the drug said it had interfered with her ability to feel pain; one minute she had been running, the next minute her leg snapped.
Antidrug sentiment grew steadily after that. Every time a horse broke down on the track, criticism of Bute grew louder. CBS' "Sixty Minutes" reported on the controversy in a manner that stirred the interest of many politicians in positions to regulate the industry. A bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature (among others) that would ban all medications in the state, and it appears likely to pass.
Racing commissioners are beginning to believe that if they don't take action against drugs, politicians will do it for them, thus undermining the commissions' authority. So when Banning approached racing officials in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware about establishing a uniform antidrug program, he got a favorable response that would have been unthinkable a year ago.
(Officials of Delaware Park did not attend yesterday's meeting at Laurel, but indicated they favored the joint program.)
If Maryland does prohibit the use of drugs after the commission meets next week, it would join New York and New Jersey as the only states to do so. Any action by the commission would not affect standardbreds, which are supervised by a separate Harness Racing Board.
Many horsemen surely will argue in favor of durgs at the meeting.
"You can bet I'll be there Nov. 15," said King Leatherbury, one of Maryland's most successful trainers. "It's unfortunate that Bute and Lasix, the two most beneficial drugs for horses, have to be lumped together with other, more damaging drugs. With Bute and Lasix you can get about five more races out of most horses. That can really make the difference economically for the owner."
"This is absolute ridiculous!" said trainer Eddie Gaudet. "Just take a horse like Pinino. I claimed him for $5,000, I gave him Lasix and he just won for $30,000. He needed Lasix to show his full potential. Why should he be denied the chance to show that potential?"
At least one area race track official worried that a ban on drugs would cut down the number of horses available to run at his track.
"I agree with banning medication," said Charles Town's general manager, John Battaglia, "but it will seriously affect the quantity of horses running on any card. The states had better come up with a building fund so we can build some new barns, because we're going to need more horses."
Banning said he will listen to all the arguments when the commission meets next week.
"We haven't made a final decision," he said. "But we're leaning that way. This medication thing is completely out of hand."