Triple Crown hoopla won't cure horse racing

Posted: June 09, 2012

Until the horse was retired due to an injury Friday, there was quite a buzz over the possibility that I'll Have Another would cross the finish line first in the Belmont Stakes today and become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. This also drew more attention to the horse's trainer, Doug O'Neill, and his long rap sheet of drugging violations.

For more than a decade, O'Neill has been in trouble over and over again for illegally administering substances to horses. Just last month, the California Horse Racing Board suspended him for 45 days in that state and fined him $15,000 for a drugging violation. Statistics show the horses he trains suffer catastrophic injury at twice the national rate, an indication that his horses are raced when fatigue and injury should dictate rest and recuperation.

To those of us not involved in racing, the questions are obvious: How can this man still be training horses? How can someone who wouldn't even be allowed to unload a horse van on a track in one state be garnering accolades in another? And why has the racing industry embraced him and not kicked him out?

Thoroughbred racing needs a zero-tolerance policy. This means much more than a long debate about whether or not furosemide, also known as Lasix or Salix, should be allowed on the day a horse races. The discussion about this drug, which purports to prevent bleeding in the lungs during exertion, is a racing industry delay tactic: If it focuses on this one medication, it won't have to talk about the 25 or 30 injections of drugs that are often given to horses in the week before a race.

The misuse of legal drugs to prop up unfit horses is killing racing — and thoroughbreds — in America. Everyone from the groom to the top trainer knows it, but few are willing to admit it, with notable exceptions.

At a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission hearing on race-day drugging last fall, famed thoroughbred owner Arthur Hancock said, "Therapeutic drugs are given to a horse who is ailing or recovering. Is every horse in every race ill or injured?" Retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens recently testified before Congress on the use of drugs to keep horses running, saying: "Horses need down time. ... Horses need time off to heal naturally. ... [A] lot of good horses would still be running today if medications weren't used in the way they are. Would you inject your son or daughter so they could run in a track meet?"

Because there's no federal oversight of horse racing, the Jockey Club is also trying to deal with the deadly proliferation of drugs. It has proposed sensible rules and penalties that could get the worst offenders out of racing altogether. But it needs every racing board in 38 states to buy in.

It's clear that racing's heavy-hitters can't stop the excessive drugging by themselves. The entire industry needs to embrace reform instead of syringes. Every trainer could start by firing the veterinarians whose answer to an ache is drugs instead of rest. Every thoroughbred owner should fire or not hire trainers with violations.

This would mean a good many track vets and trainers would be filing for unemployment. But it might also mean the beginning of clean racing — and fewer injuries and deaths on the racetrack.

Kathy Guillermo is a vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. This was distributed by McClatchy-Tribune.

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