When the Maryland Racing Commission voted to ban all drugs from the state's thoroughbred tracks, its members felt that the use of Butazolidin and Lasix had gotten hopelessly out of control.
"Trainers are giving these drugs to all their horses whether they need them or not," one commissioner complained. Racing boards in other states have come to the same conclusion: Horsemen are incapable of using legal medications in a judicious fashion.
But if Maryland's commissioners had wanted to find evidence that a medication program could work effectively, they did not have to look far. At their own state's harness tracks, Bute and Lasix have remained legal with no overuse, no scandal, no public outcry. In fact, harness officials' only concern about drugs is that the thoroughbreds' problems will spill over into their laps.
"The thoroughbred people have abused the program so much that all of us are probably going to suffer," said George Starkey, president of the Maryland Harness Horsemen's Association.
At thoroughbred tracks, virtually all the horses run with drugs. But Ben Schwartz chairman of Maryland's Harness Racing Board, calculated that only 15 percent of the standardbreds in the state run on Bute; only 8 percent use Lasix.
Unlike their thoroughbred counterparts, the Harness Racing Board attempts to regulate the use of Butazolidin. "If a horse has a rheumatoidal problem, stiffness or soreness in the muscles, Bute is great," Schwartz said. p"But it's not intended for use on a horse who has bone chips or broken bones. A trainer has to explain why he wants to use the drug and get permission from the state vet to put his horse on the Bute program."
If such a system existed in thoroughbred racing, trainers would probably be playing ever possible angle to get their horses on the Bute list. In fact, that doesn't happen much in harness racing.
"I don't have to turn them down a whole lot," said Dr. Larry Atkinson, the state veterinarian. "They're more conservative than I am. Harness horsemen are kind of Christian Scientists compared with thorughbred horsemen."
Bute is less needed, and less used, at harness tracks because standardbreds are more durable than thorughbreds. They take much less of a physical beating in competition. And because there are not so many claiming races at harness tracks, trainers don't feel that they must put any horse on the Bute list to discourage their rivals from claiming him.
The need for Lasix ought to be comparable in the two sports, since standardbreds and thoroughbreds suffer equally from respiratory problems. But only thoroughbred horsemen use it indiscriminately.
"There is a tremendous disparity in the use of Lasix," said Stan Bergstein, executive director of the Harness Tracks of America. "We can't conceive of 70 percent of all horses getting Lasix. It makes me wonder what the hell is going on."
The explanation for the harness horsemen's restraint may lie in the homey, rural roots of their sport. "In the standardbred industry," Starkey said, "we still have a lot of small family-type owners who are not as apt to abuse an animal."
Even though it does not have a serious drug problem, the harness-racing industry is feeding the effects of the thoroughbred sport's problems. Its officials believe that all racing has suffered from the public's perception that horses are regularly drugged.
Furthermore, Starkey said, "We are concerned that we are going to lose two controlled medications that are very helpful to the animals if they're used properly. There is a real need for these drugs in some cases and we'd hate to see them banned. But the throughbred people have totally abused it -- you know all those horses don't all belong on Bute. Now the wave of reaction is probably going to swamp us all."