Charlie Harris is a New York venture capitalist and horse owner, not a professional writer, but he has accomplished something that any journalist would envy. He wrote an editorial that shook up an industry.
Harris is hardly the first person to complain in print about the abuse of drugs in American racing. Some of us have been doing so for decades--with no tangible results. But the guest column that Harris wrote recently for the Blood-Horse magazine has touched some sensitive nerves.
Harris described his experience in shipping a horse from New York to Kentucky for a stakes race: "Our trainer, Christophe Clement, warned us it was his understanding that some, if not all, of the other horses in the race would be running on medication administered up to four hours before a race, including 'milkshakes.' We also were given to understand that 'prerace preparation' for a horse in Kentucky might run $500." Harris asked: "Has it reached the point that the bettors should have been informed that our horse was running without a milkshake?"
"Milkshaking" is a practice that involves putting a tube down a horse's nose and force-feeding him a mixture of baking soda, sugar and water. The concoction, designed to reduce the buildup of lactic acid that causes fatigue in an athlete, scandalized harness racing. "Trainers came along and became miracle workers," said Stan Bergstein, executive vice president of the Harness Tracks of America. "They started moving up ordinary horses in a remarkably short period of time." The harness industry shared Bergstein's conviction that milkshakes could "affect horses' welfare, make a mockery of the sport and erode public confidence"; it started testing for evidence of milkshakes and cracked down on violators. But milkshakes never have received much attention in the thoroughbred sport--until now.
Although milkshakes are illegal in most states, Kentucky has adopted such liberal drug policies that almost anything goes in the state. Kentucky recently legalized clenbuterol, a drug associated with sharp form reversals that had been an industry-wide scandal. Kentucky allows unrestricted use of Lasix, which can conceal the presence of illegal substances in a horse's system. It permits a horse to be treated with powerful painkillers forbidden in almost every other racing jurisdiction. Yet few outsiders realized that Kentucky also tolerated milkshakes.
After the publication of Harris's article, the Kentucky Racing Commission acknowledged that milkshaking is not illegal in the state. Its executive director admitted that he'd heard "one or two comments that we've been lax" and decreed that any horse found milkshaked within four hours of a race would be scratched. The Daily Racing Form's Matt Hegarty reported that milkshakes have become a common race-day practice in Kentucky, and elicited an admission from the racing commission's chairman that the integrity of Kentucky racing was under scrutiny.
The Blood-Horse's editor-in-chief, Ray Paulick, wrote that drug rules governing the 2000 Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs should be taken away from Kentucky authorities lest the event become an international embarrassment. Harris's article not only revealed the practice of milkshaking but also underscored a crucial aspect of the debate over medication in the sport.
Whenever racing commissions examine drug policies, they consult and rely on the guidance of the experts--the veterinarians. The vets invariably give their assurance that the drugs are safe and beneficial to the animal. But veterinarians are the ones who profit if it costs $500 to give a horse all the drugs and treatments he needs to be competitive in a Kentucky race. If Churchill Downs runs 10 races a day with 10 horses in a race, that adds up to--a lot of money and a lot of self-interest for the vets who administer the "prerace preparation." Letting them be the arbiters of medication policy is like letting Philip Morris determine whether smoking is hazardous to one's health.
With such a vested interest in the use of drugs, veterinarians and their allies have spoken forcibly for liberal medication policies. But the people who should be opposed have been strangely silent. The abuse of drugs distorts the form of horses who will go on to be stallions, and this should be of great concern to breeders. Yet the leaders of Kentucky's mighty breeding industry have organized no effective opposition to the pro-drug faction. Racetrack operators have been mute, too. Shouldn't Tom Meeker, the president of Churchill Downs, be taking a stand against the corrupt practices on the backstretch of his racetrack?
Harris broke the conspiracy of silence, but he insisted that his trainer deserves the credit. "The fact that a trainer like Clement was willing to stick his neck out and be quoted was what gave [the article] some credibility," Harris said. That credibility was buttressed by the fact that Harris is not a rabble-rouser--just an owner who loves the game and is worried about it.
"I care about the sport and I'd like to see it have a chance to survive," he said. "But I don't see how racing's marketing efforts are going to get anywhere if it can't bear public scrutiny. It makes you angry when you see drugstore cowboys winning races over great horsemen. Bettors are so cynical that [when they talk about trainers] they say, 'So-and-so has got the juice.' It completely perverts the game."