Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Steroids on the Way Out

Last week's Thoroughbred Times (dated August 2nd) had a number of articles on steroids and their effect on race horses. All good reading, as far as they went, but, alas, it appears that we don't have a lot of scientific evidence on exactly how steroids affect race horses, whether and to what extent they are "performance enhancing," or what their long-term effects on horses' health and well-being might be. But even as we wait for more "scientific" findings, I think we can all generally be pleased that the industry is moving with some speed toward eliminating steroids on race day.

[Just to be clear, what we're mostly talking about when we discuss steroids in racing are the anabolic-androgenic steroids: testosterone, stanozolol (Winstrol), boldenone (Equipoise) and nandrolone). Most of these are synthetic versions of the testosterone that naturally occurs in male horses. "Anabolic refers to their body-building effects -- think Mark McGwire -- and androgenic simply means related to male sex hormones.]

Steroids have been around in race horses for 50 years or so, although, as vet-to-the-super-trainers Steve Allday noted in the Thoroughbred Times article, their use increased dramatically in the late 1980s, especially among claiming trainers who were trying to run their horses back early and often. And the trainers who didn't get on the bandwagon mostly ended up out of the business, or with greatly reduced numbers of horses. Gasper Moschera, once king of the New York claiming trainers, is today in premature retirement in Florida, forced out, he says, by his inability to compete with trainers who were using the "juice."

According to the one large scale study that we do have,
in a 2004 sample of more than 600 horses from Pennsylvania, some 60% of race horses tested positive for at least one steroid, and 17.4% tested positive for two or more steroids. From what I see on my own vet bills, those seem to be pretty representative numbers. Horses are routinely receiving steroids as part of their general vet care at the race track, and all the while, we have no idea whether, or even how, they improve performance, nor what their long-term effects may be. But it's hard to tell a trainer not to do what everyone else is doing.

Although long-term studies are lacking, there's certainly lots of anecdotal evidence about the effect of steroids on race horses. Anyone who's bought at the two-year-old-in-training sales is familiar with the big, muscular sales horse who comes back to the farm and suddenly looks like a 97-pound weakling, presumably because the horse is no longer getting its steroid regimen. And there's lots of evidence that steroids administered at the race track, besides providing the advertised benefits of increased appetite, more muscle mass and a tougher, more competitive disposition, can also lead to such unwanted traits as severe aggression and a willingness to run through pain -- something that may result in breakdowns. A horse we used to own, a George-Steinbrenner-bred gelding named Adverse, provided me with some painful, personal anecdotal evidence -- he very nearly bit my thumb off in what was not a playful attack. While some vets make an argument for administering steroids to geldings, who no longer are producing natural testosterone, it seems pretty clear that such great geldings as Kelso, Forego and John Henry managed to do pretty well without that chemical boost.

Dr. Mary Scollay, who has studied race horse injuries for many years, thinks that the added muscle mass attributable to steroids may be a factor in breakdowns, because the extra weight places more pressure on a horse's already fragile bone structure, increasing the risk of microfractures that, under race-day pressure, turn into catastrophic breakdowns.

Not to mention that some of the available steroids can't even be guaranteed to be free of contaminants. Winstrol, for example, the steroid given to Big Brown by Rick Dutrow, is really the trade name for a brand of the steroid stanozolol. But brand-name Winstrol was discontinued by drug maker Pfizer in 2002, and what trainers have been calling Winstrol ever since is whatever "compounded" medication they obtain from a veterinary pharmacy, with very little regulatory oversight or quality control. Think cheap Chinese ingredients, and you might wonder why Big Brown's owners would let anyone inject their horse with that stuff. Of course, now I'm wondering why I let my trainers and vets use it on my own horses.

Lots of vets say there is a legitimate use for steroids -- in helping a horse recover from an injury, especially helping the horse add weight and muscle tone after surgery. But even if those therapeutic uses are valid, shouldn't the administration of steroids then be limited to horses that are off the track, recovering?

One can see just how ineffective steroids have been in improving the breed by looking at how fragile horses have become over the years. At the start of the steroid era, in 1960, the average race horse ran more than 11 times a year. By 2006, the average horse ran barely six times a year. And career starts have declined at a similar pace, to fewer than 20 per horse. Maybe we're breeding frailer horses, but steroids sure haven't helped. One interesting study would be to look at the number of starts per year for trainers that we all can agree are "clean" and who are willing to say that they don't use steroids. If those trainers have higher starts per horse per year than the average, we could conclude that steroids are actually a negative factor.

The steroid era does seem to be winding down, however. The sale companies are moving to eliminate steroid use in the horses they offer at auction, by amending their conditions of sale to allow a buyer to return any horse that fails a drug test. In the past year, every horse that was tested coming out of such sales was, in fact, steroid-free, so that's one major step. As of right now, though, steroids are still allowable at all the two-year-old sales except those run by the Ocala Breeders Sales Co. (OBS). It's pretty certain, though, that Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland, the other major auction companies, are moving to eliminate steroids in the horses they sell as well.

Such industry groups as the Breeders Cup and the American Graded Stakes Committee are also moving toward putting in place rules that will bar steroids in the highest-level races. Those rules could be implemented by racing itself, without needing to go through any time-consuming state regulatory processes.

And racing commissions are also moving toward a ban on steroids -- or at least the setting of minimal threshold levels that should ensure that a horse in the starting gate hasn't been juiced fin the past 30-60 days. Congress is too. With Congressional attention focused on the industry, there seems to be a lot of momentum toward having new rules about steroid use in place in all major racing jurisdictions by the end of the year. If they are not, you can be pretty sure that the next Congress will force the issue. And once a bill gains some traction in Congress, it's hard to predict how it will turn out; for example, well-meaning animal-rights activists might seek to attach a ban on two-year-old racing, or to limit the Kentucky Derby to four-year-olds. With Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has frequently acted as the Senator from Horse Racing, in a tough reelection fight, it's possible that racing would not have very many influential friends in the next Congress.

The new rules don't eliminate steroids altogether; they'll still be allowable for "therapeutic" purposes, if far enough removed in time so that any traces still in the horse on race day are below threshold levels. But eliminating them from day-to-day racing may help even out the playing field a little.
In Delaware, where steroid use is already being restricted, horsemen report that a wider range of trainers are now winning races, which at least suggests that drug use may have contributed to the very high win percentages recorded by a few trainers in the past.

Those beneficial effects assume, of course, that the racing industry does adequate testing so that those using steroids too close to the race date can be caught. As of right now, for the 28 states conducting thoroughbred racing, some 18 different testing labs are being used. Some of these labs -- Cornell, the University of Florida, Penn and the University of California at Davis -- are well-equipped, well-staffed, and thoroughly professional. But many states award their testing contracts to the lowest bidder, which is not exactly a reassurance of high quality. With the adoption of new rules on steroid use, not to mention the advent of such even newer possibilities as gene-splicing to enhance performance, we need to concentrate drug testing in the labs where there is the capacity to do the tests right, and we need to finance those labs at a reasonable level.

I had meant this discussion of steroids to be just the introduction to a more general discussion of veterinary costs for race horses, but it's already sufficiently long on its own. Next time we'll look at all those other vet and drug costs.

No comments: