Horse News

“Drugs and dead horses”: US racing reels after PETA video

SOURCE: by Daniel Ross

As investigations into the sad case of Nehro continue, a whole sport must come to terms with the need for better regulation


Exercise rider Carlos Rosas gallops Kentucky Derby hopeful Nehro at Churchill Downs in May 2011. Photograph: Jeff Haynes/Reuters/Corbis

Though it contained less than 10 minutes of grainy, expletive-laden hidden-camera footage, a video released by Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in March dealt perhaps the most serious blow to the US racing industry in recent years. This was no inconsiderable feat, given how many broadsides the industry has endured over the treatment of its animals.

In 2012 a New York Times exposé, Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys, brought front-page visibility to disturbing trends including the fact that at the time, 24 racehorses suffered fatal breakdowns across America each week, a rate far higher than in most of the rest of the world. The same year, I’ll Have Another’s bid to be the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years was overshadowed by a story surrounding his trainer, Doug O’Neill, who over a period of 14 years had been found guilty of multiple drug violations.

The Peta video, however, was an embarrassment on many levels, not least because of the sorry tale of the horse at the centre of the narrative, Nehro – one of trainer Steve Asmussen’s most accomplished three-year-olds but with feet as fragile as glass. The video documented some of the efforts by a farrier to hold the horse’s crumbling feet together, so he could race as a four- and five-year-old. On the day Orb won the 2013 Kentucky Derby, two years after Asmussen’s horse had finished second in the same race, Nehro fell ill with colic. He later died.

The racing industry was effectively divided by the Peta video. On the one hand, condemnation of Asmussen and Scott Blasi – Asmussen’s assistant and the maker of crude and colourful remarks throughout the video – was swift. The New York State Gaming Commission, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and the New Mexico Racing Commission announced their own investigations. Blasi was fired. Nehro’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, removed his horses from Asmussen’s care. All three investigations are ongoing.

On the flip side, voices within the industry were quick to defend their sport, suggesting the video painted an unfair portrait of a world populated by horse lovers. Others questioned the tactics used by Peta.

Four months on, the clamour raised by the video has quieted. But continuing debate surrounding the use of medications in American racing reveals an industry increasingly unified towards change, if at odds with itself over how to exactly resolve this complex issue.

The latest idea mooted is a proposal to prohibit the use of race-day medication next year in all two-year-old races, with a view of expanding the ban to encompass all horses in 2016. The proposal received the support of 25 prominent trainers, as well as that of Breeders’ Cup officials Bill Farish and Craig Fravel.

While the use of race-day medication has been prohibited in two-year-old races at the Breeders’ Cup for the past two years, the Breeders’ Cup organization lifted the ban for this year’s event.

Underpinning this wider push for reform, however, is the belief that the issue of medication lies at the core of the sport’s marked decline in popularity.

Dr Rick Arthur, the equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, told the Guardian: “If you look at the marketing studies that have been done by the [National Thoroughbred Racing Association], for example, they’ve found that there are two things that the public doesn’t like about horseracing: they don’t like drugs, and they don’t like dead horses.

“To them, it’s the same issue. They tie those together.”

‘They’re the boys who brought down Lance Armstrong’

With a view of bringing the US into line with more stringent jurisdictions around the world, a relatively small but nonetheless vocal band of leading industry figures are pushing to significantly curb the use of drugs on horses in training and to eradicate race-day medications altogether. This push is spearheaded by the Water Hay Oats Alliance, which introduced the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act to Congress last year.

Essentially, the act is shaped to permit out-of-competition medication in horses but to ban any drug from being administered on race day. The act also gives the United States Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) the authority to work in concert with the racing industry to set tighter thresholds regarding what drugs can be in a horse’s system on race day – if any.

“What we’ve been pushing for is the United States Congress to pass a federal bill giving the power to regulate race-day medications to Usada,” said Arthur B Hancock III, one of the chief proponents of the act who owns Stone Farm in Kentucky, one of the nation’s foremost breeding operations.

Usada has been brought on board as an integral component of the bill, said Hancock, because of its successful track record in fighting drug cheats in other sports.

“[Usada] are the people that brought down Lance Armstrong. The cycling industry couldn’t manage to do it themselves because of all the good old boy connections, so to speak, that exist in their sport,” said Hancock, pointing to what he believes is a similar network of cronyism in US horseracing circles. “But Travis Tygart, who’s the CEO of Usada, is an extremely capable leader. And he and Usada were able to straighten the whole thing out.”

At the heart of the race-day medication debate is a drug commonly called Lasix – a diuretic which helps prevent horses rupturing blood vessels in their respiratory systems when under duress. Hancock argues that years of heavy medication usage, such as with Lasix, has weakened the breed to the extent that US-bred thoroughbreds are not only becoming physically less robust but are losing considerable economic value – a consequence he believes has had serious ramifications for the industry as a whole:

Back in the 1950s, for instance, if you owned a racehorse you could expect 45 lifetime starts. Now it’s down to 12. Think of the economic ramifications of that. And I think [drug use] is one of the reasons why we haven’t had a Triple Crown winner for so long.

George Strawbridge, a prominent owner-breeder with horses trained in the UK and the US, agrees with Hancock about the detrimental long-term affects of heavy drug use on horses in competition.

“I don’t understand why there’s such a reluctance to change the status quo, which is that the US is becoming a bigger and bigger cesspool of drugs,” he said. “There is basically a rampant drug culture in our country. Over 90% of our trainers want to be able to use drugs. And we have many inadequate testing facilities in this country.”

Drug use is so prevalent, said Strawbridge, because it is the less expensive alternative to more expensive holistic remedies. “Try resting a horse so it recovers from its injury,” he said.

Strawbridge disagrees with those who argue that certain drugs are therapeutic, rather than performance enhancers:

They say Lasix is therapeutic, but Lasix is a performance enhancer. That’s why the Aiden O’Briens and the John Gosdens, when they race in the States, they give them Lasix. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Among those who believe that the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act is misguided is Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI), an umbrella group covering racing commissioners in North America. Martin’s concerns centre around Usada: that the standards it applies to other sports are not nearly as stringent as the ones already in place in US racing.

“Our standards are tougher,” said Martin. “And the people who think that the Usada standards are better really ought to consider that. We basically found that if we adopted those standards and applied them to horseracing, we would increase drug use.”

Martin compared each group’s list of prohibited substances, pointing out how the number of drugs on the ARCI’s schedule of prohibited substances was more than three-times longer than the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) listing.

“And the one main thing that we are better on is that we don’t give ‘therapeutic use’ exemptions,” he said. “You go to the Usada annual report, and they will tell you how many therapeutic use exemptions they give. You find narcotics, and stimulants and hormones – all of those, we would find a violation for.”


13 replies »

  1. The same old crap, over and over again. These horses are still growing when they start racing. To put a 2year old on Thyroxin is playing with fire, that is a thyroid replacement hormone for patients who cant regulate their metabolism. why give it to a young horse who is otherwise healthy. Over time messing with a child’s ability to heal will have for more bigger problem’s down the road. Like death. I viewed the Peta video. yes its really disturbing. What is also equally if not more disturbing is the Ass clown’s who prescribe this replacement hormone in the first place should not be practicing veterinary medicine. They should be jailed. If this were your kid’s the doctor would be put in jail for sure.


  2. We are slowly becoming a nation of druggies and that includes the poor horses who have no say in what is given or injected in them. Personally I feel that at two years old they have no business racing as their bones are still growing as well as their minds. I have seen too much of drugs being given to cover up pain in a horse that should be given time to heal properly. As everything else the horses have become a disposable body if they do not perform well. So sad for both human and animal.


  3. Thank you for this excellent report! The noise needs of truth is welcome. This drugging of horses is an abomination. Drugs in athletes, for any reason, is cheating. If it were not cheating, there would be chains, two or three lead walkers, tiedowns, harsher bits – wait those are haPpening now.

    Everytime I see a TB, who I adore for their goofy, brave and joyful selves, in the hands of a racer, I feel sadness and quiet despair. Gone are the days when one of these amazing beings are the sar of the team. The atmosphere is now that he or she is a part of an engine – a replaceable part.

    I think it is also to the detriment of the discipline that horses are moved all over the world, mixing cultures has eroded self cntrol and accountability. And invited a fever pitch of ruthless competition.

    Again, thank you for this excellent report.


  4. In the context of wild horses, it is incumbent on us to remember how much we have limited the gene pool in our domestic horses, especially racehorses. We race them far too young, but we have also narrowed their genetic resilience such that they are lesser specimens than in years past, so it’s a double whammy of increasing fragility and not allowing them enough time to grow up or stay sound for any purposes, not to mention other problems of such closeup in and line breeding.


  5. The drugging of young horses is beyond belief. As far as I’m concerned – stop racing two year olds! We all know racing a two year old means that baby was started at least 3-6 months earlier. This whole “to-do” about race horses is the same thing that should be publicized in the two year old futurities – the “Big Lick” shows – dressage shows (the exaggerated head & neck carriage) – rodeo(!) – pretty much any discipline that involves horses – greed – and power! How sad that any time humans become involved with animals there is always in some way – abuse! And yes, Icy, I think the racehorses today are less than they were in years past.


  6. Fragile hooves is an unsound/unfit horse and to still race is actually cruelty as well as cheating. Cheating is equated when you continue to use artificial tactics to continue in a field of horses that may otherwise be sound. The idea for racing is to perform exceptional quality animals which are both sound and can carry future field genetics forward. We had the same issues in Walkers and AQHA as they have regulations on the horses and people perpetually defy them to win. The performers\racers who follow rules on soundness cannot win against people with artificial means. If you are sewing your horse together and feeding him with a hookak and a syringe you Know its NOT sound. A roll of duct tape and b vitamins dont count either….you have to really have Superior horses before you add on or repair. For trainers who repair they are extending the careers on the unsoundness and should be disqualified. Sorry but thats the value behind a truly sound horse with minor exceptions naturally. Horses are NOT meant to be puzzles hemmed in to keep going until their a picture hung on a wall. These are living animals who cant say this is a bad idea. Breeders need to usemore selective breeding to promote soundness and now you see why a handful of breeders want slaughter… cover these errors in poor judgement random breeding up especially on the hoof subject.


    • Colt I agree with you… but think you have left out a major player, that being the owners and also those who write the races. Owners pay for all the “services” breeders and trainers deliver, with the goal of winning the races that are available to enter. Imagine if we banned all racing until horses were, say, five year olds. The industry would probably collapse but out of the ashes could arise something sane and even useful. One can imagine at least races that were straight line only, and used to improve genetics rather than improve doping strategies.


  7. Great report on the true and horrible facts behind the racing industry! It’s time to end the use of drugs and allow the horses to win on their own merit, such as; improving on genetics, maturity, etc.. Is it any wonder the public is losing interest and rightly so!


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