Horse Racing

Industry practices are at the center of debate on horse safety

Maryland trainer Chris Grove knows all too well that racehorses sometimes take fatal missteps. It happened to one of his best horses last summer during a morning workout, and Grove likens the experience to losing a child.

To Grove, the animals' broken bones are mostly unpredictable, unexplainable — and ultimately unpreventable.

"They're kind of like kids — they find ways of hurting themselves," said Grove, a Frederick resident and former trainer of Sweet Goodbye, a six-year old, Maryland-bred mare with career earnings topping $600,000. The horse shattered an ankle and was euthanized. "That was just bad luck," Grove said.

As Saturday's Preakness approaches, trainers such as Grove find themselves part of a national debate over industry practices regarding horses' health and safety. Trainers were placed on the defensive by recent media reports and congressional testimony examining racehorse deaths and questioning whether the prevalence of drugs administered to the animals contributes to breakdowns.

Interviews with Grove and some of his Maryland peers expose deep-rooted philosophical differences between many trainers on one side, and critics — including lawmakers and some industry officials and veterinarians — on the other.

"The easy thing to say is (to blame) the drugs," said Grove, who had a Preakness entry last year in Norman Asbjornson and has another on Saturday in Pretension. "I think it's too easy of an excuse."

While some trainers have reputations for being "clean," reform advocates say many others are often too entrenched in their industry — and have too much invested in their horses' performances — to appreciate the harm being done by corticosteroids and other drugs they say are routinely overused.

Veterinarian Kathy Papp likens the current environment to the former steroids era in Major League Baseball when drug use was so rampant that — according to congressional testimony and public reports — some players felt they needed to use to keep pace. Baseball didn't begin year-round testing until 2007.

Most horse-racing drug tests are done immediately surrounding races, and Papp said racing — which is overseen by 38 state commissions with varying rules — could benefit by comprehensive, out-of-competition testing and improved security measures such as cameras in barns.

"Nobody is doing it because no one has the funding," said Papp, who is based at Penn National racecourse in Grantville, Pa.

"Some of the trainers really try to do a good job, but then they find out they can't compete unless they do what everybody else is doing," she said. "I have little trainers complaining to me all the time about how the big trainers must be doing something illicit."

The industry debate over horse deaths was intensified by a recent New York Times report that, on average, 24 horses die each week on American tracks. The newspaper said bigger purses encouraged trainers to enter unfit horses and contributed to the deaths of 30 horses at Aqueduct Racetrack. It said most of the top 20 American trainers ranked by purses won — including Doug O'Neill, who trains Kentucky Derby winnerI'll Have Another — have been sanctioned during their careers for medication rules violations involving horses.

There is also continuing debate about whether 3-year-olds are mature enough to handle Triple Crown races such as the Preakness, and whether a national governing body is needed to ensure that race-day rules are standardized across all states.

O'Neill has denied that he had practiced "milkshaking," slang for giving horses a concoction of baking soda and other ingredients intended to combat horses' fatigue. He faces up to a 180-day suspension in California for having a horse test positive for an elevated level of total carbon dioxide — possibly a result of milkshaking — for a third time in the state. He's also been suspended and fined for the same offense in Illinois.

"Swear to God I've never done it," O'Neill said earlier this week outside of Barn D at Pimlico. "Who would even do that to a horse? There's nobody we have who would do that sort of thing, and we care for every one of our horses the best way we know how. That includes monitoring everything that goes into them."

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, has used the term "chemical warfare" to describe what he considers unscrupulous doping of horses. He and other lawmakers worry that painkillers and other drugs can mask horses' pain that would otherwise signal impending harm on the track. Udall is a co-sponsor of pending legislation that would bar the use of any drugs — not just steroids — in a horse's system that could affect race-day performance.

A number of states, including Maryland, have banned steroids in racing in the past five years. The drugs were not regulated by Maryland as recently as 2008.

Horse racing is often a family business. Many trainers — such as Grove, a former exercise rider and groom who trains horses in Bowie — grew up around horses and became steeped in the industry.

"I came up the right way, and most trainers do come up the right way," Grove said. "They understand what this drug and what that drug does."

Grove and other trainers said their experience equips them — better than the media — to tell the industry's story.

"You watch a program like (HBO's)'Luck.'None of them are very real," said Jimmy Toner, who trains horses at Maryland's Fair Hill and New York's Belmont Park.

The show staged a graphic scene of a horse breaking its leg — there is an audible snap — during a race. "Luck" was canceled and animal advocates complained about conditions after three horses were injured and euthanized in connection with the making of the program.

"I don't think the medication in itself has anything to do with breakdowns,"Toner said. "Breakdowns are caused by circumstances. You know what it is? It's a misstep. Was there any answer for Eight Belles ? Was there any answer for Ruffian ? Unfortunately, it's part of the game of racing. We've all been through it. I've had them in workouts. Just taking a bad step.

"The big issue today is Lasix," Toner said, referring to the popular diuretic. "I don't think there is any harm. Horses have been racing on this thing for years. Everything you see today is run on Lasix."

Lasix can reduce bleeding in horses' lungs and cause them to lose weight. Its race-day use on the animals is banned everywhere but North America. Critics say it's often used as a performance enhancer, and that most horses aren't bleeders and don't need it.

On April 30, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board announced it was reviewing its policies on Lasix, calling its continued use a "complex and controversial issue."

Maryland is monitoring the Lasix debate.

"If a (rules) adjustment or modification is warranted, certainly they would review it," said Michael Hopkins, the Maryland Racing Commission's executive director. "If you're going to make a change, do it for a good reason."

Michael Matz, who trains Preakness entry Teeth of the Dog, said: "I do whatever I can to prevent the horse from bleeding. If it's a $12 shot of Lasix that does it, I don't think its [wrong]. I wish to heck that with every horse that wasn't a problem. But when a horse exerts itself, those capillaries do break. It's hard to treat a horse, or to take a horse out and know that they might bleed in their lungs. And if one little shot of Lasix can help them, can prevent it? If you have a headache, you take an aspirin don't you?"

Phenylbutazone, or bute, is probably the most commonly used drug on thoroughbreds in Maryland, according to the commission. Overusing the anti-inflammatory drug can bring fines and lead to suspension or disqualification.

"I think it's very well regulated (in Maryland)," Hopkins said.

Taken in excess, bute can damage the kidney and gastrointestinal systems. Papp said she believes many trainers administer it for competitive reasons rather than need.

"Whether the horse is sore or not, they give it," said the veterinarian, who testified about drugs at an April 30 hearing of a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.

Bute is ingrained in the racing culture.

"The therapeutic drugs – it's not much different than you taking aspirin and going out working," said trainer Dale Capuano, who is based at Laurel Park.

But some trainers have expressed unease about the environment at the tracks.

At the congressional hearing, New Jersey-based trainer Glenn Thompson testified that there is "a culture of drugs" in the sport. Years ago, if a horse had a bad ankle, "we used a whirlpool, ice and hose," Thompson testified. Today, he said, "You give the horse bute."

Thompson, who testified that his more than 30 years of working with thoroughbreds has not included a positive drug test, is the author of a book called "The Tradition of Cheating in the Sport of Kings."

"From the time you start your first hot walking job until you take out your trainer's license you were taught, if a horse has a problem, you do whatever it takes to get them healthy to race," Thompson's written testimony said.

But Capuano, a trainer for 31 years, said most trainers value their horses enough to not knowingly put them in harm's way in the interest of winning races.

"I think most trainers do (care about their horses). Like anything else, not all (of them). I'd say most of us don't want to have a guilty conscience. If something bad happens, it would haunt them for awhile," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Korman contributed to this article.