The History of Drugs In Racing As a Business

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TwinSpires Staff

October 10th, 2014

by Doug Salvatore

“In the old romances of chivalry, there occurs an episode that has taken infinite forms but always has the same central theme. A wizard comes to the court of the king with the most magnificent mantle ever seen. He announces that he will make a gift of it to the fairest lady of the court. But it has a magic property making it impossible for any beauty who has not also lived a life of perfect chastity to keep it about her shoulders. The king immediately takes it from the wizard and throws it about the shoulders of the queen, but he has not strength enough to keep it there, nor can her majesty, despite the most desperate efforts, succeed in doing so. Then one great noble after another essays to gain the magic mantle for his wife by putting her to the test. Not one can stand it. Finally, a high and mighty lord, hot with shame and jealousy, after his spouse has shared the general fate, draws his sword and attempts to cut down the wizard, but the man of wiles simply vanishes into thin air, leaving behind him a demoniac laughter and a series of domestic difficulties impossible of adjustment.

If some such test were applied to the trainers at some noted race tracks, it is probable that the result would not widely differ; for there are, to tell the simple truth, very few, however upright, that have not, at some period of their careers, tried out “the dope” at least once, if only for their own personal satisfaction.”

Legendary horse racing historian John Hervey

In a recent Op Ed piece in the Thoroughbred Daily News, Barry Irwin argues against Lasix and stated his belief that Thoroughbred racing is “sport first, business second.”

Personally, I fault absolutely no one who opposes race-day medications. However, the arguments being used by industry leaders are usually detached from reality.

Barry Irwin continues, “To taint this glorious contest by artificially impacting the outcome is, in a word, unconscionable. Once the horse’s welfare is back as the paramount concern of horsemen, the sport will soon be revitalized.”

The reality is that racing in America has virtually always been plagued by drugs, and these drugs have always been far more heinous than Lasix.

As you can see, the drugging of Thoroughbreds in American racing was prevalent, across all class levels, over a century ago. And what kind of drugs were horses administered?

The rest of the racing world also had big problems with doping.

George Lambton was a legendary British trainer. He trained for Lord Derby for more than 30 years. He won all the big races of his day. Lambton was a son of the 2nd Earl of Durham and he was educated at Eton College and Cambridge University. This is a Vanity Fair caricature of him from 1904:

Lambton wrote a 17-column series called 'Memoirs of the British Turf' -- in two separate columns he touched on doping. Here is a fascinating cut where he openly admits to doping:


In 2012, Steve Haskin wrote an excellent piece for Blood-Horse titled “The History of Drugs in America.”

In that column, Steve touched on the popularity of administering heroin to Thoroughbreds, as well as the human guinea pigs who were used by trainers to test the potency of the dope.

“By 1930, one of the more popular drugs to administer to horses was heroin. Although lethal in large doses, horses were able to tolerate it due to its addictive qualities. The use of heroin on the backstretch lured a number of unsavory characters, mainly addicts hoping to get a fix. One such character was ‘Railroad Red,’ who would go from to barn, serving as a guinea pig to test the purity of the heroin before it was given to the horses. For years, trainers used Railroad Red’s services. Red eventually got tired of the routine and decided to go straight. He locked himself in a barn loft for three days and went ‘cold turkey.’ Although he never touched the stuff again, he turned to liquor as a substitute and became a drunk.

Obviously, Thoroughbred racing is a far cleaner and better regulated sport today. However, it is a sport that will always have its ‘Submerged Tenth’—those small fraction who use undetectable performance enhancing drugs to gain an edge. Indeed, these are the words John Hervey prophetically wrote almost a century ago:

I applaud Barry Irwin and “others of his ilk that have spent hundreds of years developing the Thoroughbred breed” for wanting to fight the good fight and stamp out all the medications they can. Those who denounce the use of Lasix like to say some variation of “Americans were sold a bill of goods by needle-happy vets and Big Pharma.” However, none of these people ever seem to denounce the commercial breeder, the pinhooker, and the two-year-old in training sale. Together, they do more damage to the breed than the overuse of a therapeutic medication like Lasix, could ever possibly do.

If it is fair game to say that “Americans were sold a bill of goods by needle-happy vets and Big Pharma.” it should also be fair game to note that commercial breeding operations and auction companies such as OBS advertise heavily with entities that supply racing journalisim.

In a speech on September 28, renowned equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage reportedly said, “I believe furosemide is valuable to the horse when racing, but there are too many reasons we can't keep it. The general public can't understand it and the continual drumbeat of journalists, most of whom truly have no idea of what they are talking about, will become a death knell if we don't stop it.”

Personally, I believe race-day Lasix is blamed for problems that could as easily be blamed on our long established and popular practice of pinhooking yearlings to resell at 2-year-old in training sales.  The practice is simple, buy yearlings with the hope that they will blitz a furlong in 10 seconds flat at their 'under-tack preview' and turn a big profit on the re-sale. These babies are subjected to every dodge and device, they're pushed hard and every edge is taken to get the most out of them. In fact, the vast majority of them even wear blinkers during their under-tack drill.

A great moment for juvenile auctions happened at the Barrett's March 2-year-old in training sale in 1995 when Unbridled's Song smoked in his under-tack drill. He attracted a record $1.4 million final bid. His brilliant career was plagued by injury, but he was the Kentucky Derby post time favorite and went on to have an excellent career as a stallion.

A far more dubious moment happened at the Fasig Tipton Calder sale in 2006 when The Green Monkey attracted a record $16 million bid after working the fastest 1/8th mile of the sale. A scarcely remembered fact, Tiz Wonderful worked the fastest 1/4 mile of that sale, drilling a quarter mile in 20.60 seconds. The Green Monkey never won a single race, but Tiz Wonderful was at least an outstanding two-year-old and has been a solid sire.

Billy Turner, who trained the great Seattle Slew to a Triple Crown sweep, reportedly called the emergence of 2-year-old in training sales in the early 1980's “the worst thing that has happened to the breed since time began.”

Turner continued “The only thing that's important [to the sellers] is getting a fast eighth-of-a-mile out of the horse before the sale,” That horse is breezing faster than it would ever run or be worked. When you send them out that fast you're causing cartilage damage you can't see at the time. Six months, a year later, the [bone] chip you come up with? It started right there.”

Look, I don't want to paint pinhookers as modern day pirates and train robbers. I am sure there are some who would happily put the welfare of a horse over making a tremendous profit. However, what they do is not in the long-term best interest of the horse.

If you do a search of the top 30 thoroughbreds by North American earnings since 2000, you'll find that 29 of the top 30 were never so much as entered in a 2-year-old sale. In fact, only one horse (Gio Ponti) even competed in an under-tack show. He worked very slowly in the 2007 Fasig Tipton Calder breeze show, and failed to meet his reserve. So, 29 of the top 30 by earnings never entered a 2-year-old sale, and none of the 30 sold at a 2-year-old sale. However, all 30 of these horses competed with the medication lasix. That even includes the lone European, Goldikova, who used Lasix in three of her Breeders' Cup Mile starts.

In 2012, the three stars of the triple crown series were I'll Have Another, Bodemeister, and Union Rags. All of them worked fast at 2-year-old in training sales, none of them managed to make a single start after the Triple Crown series, all retiring with injuries.

I don't mean to vilify 2-year-old in training sales. In fact, I may well owe my entire existence in horse racing to them. I've been a professional horseplayer for more than a dozen years, and they've provided me with my biggest edge. What's more, these sales are way too vital to the American horse racing economy to even think about doing away with them. In fact, these sales are finally catching on in Europe. Earlier this year, a record was set when a War Front colt sold at Tattersalls 2-year-old in training sales for $1.15 million guineas, making it the first seven figure horse in Europen 2-year-old in training sale history.

When you get down to brass tacks, horse racing in America has virtually always been business first. This might not be true for the sports premier owners, but it is a business first for the general participant, and it always has been.