Friday, December 30, 2011
Hong Kong 3: Drug Rules and Horse Care
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Hong Kong 2: The Race Track Experience
This is the second of three reports based on several visits to each of the Hong Kong race tracks. Yesterday's dealt with the economics of Hong Kong racing. Tomorrow's will deal with care of horses, medication rules, and equine retirement.
The urban racetrack is an unprepossessing species in America. Aqueduct, Hawthorne, Pimlico. Blighted neighborhoods, wind whistling through near-empty stands, a few thousand patrons whose median age is deceased.
Not so in Hong Kong. Happy Valley, the in-town racecourse that runs on Wednesday evenings, is close to the center of the city, a short walk from a major subway stop, in an upscale neighborhood, with the track surrounded by expensive high-rises. And going to the races, with 30,000 or more fellow racing fans, is fun.
As for the track itself, think Aqueduct on steroids. No, not that kind of steroids; Hong Kong has just about the tightest drug rules in the world. But take an urban race track with a mid-week meeting, fill it with 30,000 or more people, build the stands 8 stories high, surround the track with skyscraper apartment buildings, throw in a beer garden for the expatriates, and you have Happy Valley. It's Hong Kong's second track, home to mid-week night racing, mostly for average-quality horses, and with few of the top-quality stakes that are mostly run at the other Hong Kong track, Sha Tin, out in the New Territories.
And the information available to the serious bettor is significantly more complete at the Hong Kong tracks than in the US. The Jockey Club web site and most of the newspapers' racing sections include reports on horses that have bled in workouts or races and on horses that turned up lame or with other injuries. That contrasts with the general lack of explanation for a layoff that's found in the Daily Racing Form or track programs in the US. Equipment changes and additions are also more comprehensively reported. In the US, the only equipment generally reported in the Form are blinkers and front bandages. In Hong Kong, there's also notification of, among other things, shadow rolls, figure-eight nosebands, the horse's weight (not just the assigned jockey weight) and a fair number of other equipment issues that may or may not make a difference, but certainly project an air of complete transparency.
The Form doesn't show as many prior races as in the US, and there's no precise equivalent of Beyer Speed Figures or the Ragozin or Thorograph Sheets for figure players, but in all other respects, the information provided to the Hong Kong bettor (at least the English-speaking variety; I can't comment on what's available in Chinese, but it certainly looked co-extensive with the English version) seems more thorough and complete than in the US.
As for medication notes, that's easy. None allowed. More on that tomorrow.
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Hong Kong 1. Where Even the Owners Make Money
Through a combination of fortuitous circumstances, my wife and I are lucky enough to be spending a month in Hong Kong, visiting our daughter, who works here, grading our law school exams far from the pleas of worried students, and, not so incidentally, checking out the Hong Kong racing scene.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Terrorists on the Backstretch?
Saturday, October 8, 2011
Not Ready for Prime Time?
Friday, September 9, 2011
How Much Cheating?
Most of the commentators at Paulick's site think that the RCI report amounts to a whitewash. To a certain extent they have a point; the report specifically excludes Lasix, which has both therapeutic AND performance-enhancing effects. But the bulk of the criticism seems to be that, well, of course there aren't many positive tests, because the real cheaters are using brand-new designer drugs that can't even be tested for.It's a clever bit of logic; if you can't find the drug in the lab, that just proves that it's there.
I'm not a scientist. Don't even play one on TV. And I had enough trouble understanding all the scientific arguments at last June's "Summit" at Belmont, discussed here. But the extraordinarily low number of positive tests does seem to me to reinforce the impression that I get hanging out on the backstretch of NYRA tracks; most horsemen are serious about their craft and honest, following the rules as best they can. If Lasix is legal, why not use it, as it's clear that it helps a lot of horses run faster. By the way, kudos to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who, with the support of his Darley and Shadwell owners, is trying to go without Lasix for his new two-year-olds. Kiaran's giving up a powerful weapon, but he might gain some valuable knowledge if Lasix is eventually banned.
The state-by-state results in the RCI study are interesting. New York accounted for 15% of all the tests, but many fewer positives, with a positive-test score of only 0.011 percent. For the US as a whole, the rate was 0.49%. Only New Jersey had a lower positive rate than New York, with 0.08%.
At the other end of the spectrum, the positive rate in Minnesota was 3.26% and in Arizona it was 2.54%. Other states with more than 1% of tests returning positives were Colorado, Montana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota (a stunning 7%, but a very small sample size), Ohio, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
Among the other major racing jurisdictions, California reported a positive rate of 0.25%, and Florida was at 0.84%. Kentucky appears to test far fewer horses than either New York or California, and reported that its rate for drug positives exceeded the national average at 0.75%. No surprise there for those who heed the rumors. Kentucky didn't even order a test of Life at Ten after last year's Breeders Cup debacle.
The RCI report doesn't name names and doesn't really address the problem of getting serious with those few trainers who do break the rules. At last report, Dick Dutrow and Patrick Biancone are still racing in New York. A simple, nationwide "three strikes and you're out" policy for Class 1 and 2 drug violations would be a really good idea.
Friday, June 17, 2011
Lasix: What Is To Be Done?
My previous two posts (here and here) dealt with the scientific evidence regarding Lasix use in thoroughbreds and with the policies of the racing world outside North America. Here’s a brief summary of what we know, as presented at the open-to-the-public Monday session of the NTRA.AAEP/RMTC “Summit” on Lasix:
Most horses bleed.
Very few horses (less than 1%) bleed at a level that seriously impairs their racing ability.
Lasix works; it reduces both the incidence and the severity of bleeding, though it doesn’t eliminate low-grade bleeding.
Horses run better with Lasix than without it; whether you call the drug a “performance enhancer,” “performance enabler,” or “performance optimizer,” horses that get Lasix run faster.
Lasix does not appear to interfere with testing for other drugs.
The rest of this post discusses what the US and Canada, the principal holdouts that allow race-day use of Lasix, should do. Two principal camps have emerged. One, led by the Jockey Club and a number of prominent owners, is calling for the rapid elimination of race-day Lasix. The other, probably representing the majority of US trainers and horsemen’s associations, contends that North America should continue to permit race-day Lasix or even that other countries should also permit it.
(Before going on, I should probably note that my views don’t necessarily – in fact I’m sure they don’t – represent the official views of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, even though I ‘m a member of the NYTHA Board of Directors.)
The horsemen’s case for Lasix appears to have two basic elements. First, they argue, Lasix is actually good for the horse. By reducing the incidence and the severity of bleeding, Lasix spares horses from the pain that severe bleeding inflicts and enables a racehorse to perform up to its potential. Second, the racing environment is so much different in the US, as compared to most of the rest of the world, that’s it’s a case of comparing apples and oranges . In this view, the fact that the rest of the world eschews Lasix has no bearing on what’s right for the US.
What are the merits of these arguments? Of course, all (or almost all) of us in the game want to spare horses unnecessary pain. Most of us are in racing because we love horses; if we were in it solely for the money, there’d be serious cause to question our sanity, as most owners, and some trainers, actually lose money. And the use of Lasix apparently does spare horses some pain, particularly by reducing what would otherwise be painful Class 3 or 4 bleeding, or the even more severe bleeding that’s visible at the nostrils (bilateral epitaxis, in vet-speak) to a milder Class 1 or 2 smattering of blood in the trachea after a race. But if sparing some horses – fewer than 1% show Class 3 or 4 bleeding or bilateral epitaxis in a strict no-Lasix jurisdiction like Hong Kong – then the logical question to ask is why 95% or more of US starters race with Lasix? In most countries that ban the drug, repeated bleeders are simply banned from racing. And in most of those jurisdictions where racing is allowed in training, but not on race day, trainers report that they treat fewer than 10% of their horses with the drug.
As for the argument that racing permits horses to run to their potential, that all depends on how one defines “potential.” In the days before anti-bleeding medication, “bleeders” were shunned by owners and systematically removed from the gene pool. (Of course, not all bleeders were so identified; the great trainer Woody Stephens had his grooms carry a red towel, so they could wipe away the evidence of bleeding before anyone noticed.) And the argument is a slippery one; what about the use of painkillers to permit a horse to run to its potential despite internal warnings that something’s amiss? Bute and other pain meds aren’t permitted on race day in most US jurisdictions, though they're frequently used in training. If Lasix reduces pain in the lungs from bleeding, why not allow drugs that reduce pain elsewhere?
And the gene pool inevitably suffers. As Denis Egan, head of the Irish racing authority, noted at Monday’s drug summit, many foreign buyers and breeders view US-bred thoroughbreds as suspect, and not as sound as their foreign-bred counterparts, despite figures that show that the number of starts per horse per year is pretty much the same all over. There’s also a concern, as yet not proven by scientific research, that long-term Lasix use reduces calcium and therefore leads to more brittle bones. Many US trainers acknowledge a decline in soundness and durability as well. My conversations with Allen Jerkens at the rail of the Belmont training track certainly bear this out; the “Chief” says most current US race horses couldn’t stand up to the intensity of training that he used to give all his charges in decades past. On the other hand, repeated bleeding episodes, which might be avoided with widespread Lasix use, have been proven to produce scarring of the lungs and remodeling of the pulmonary blood vessels, both of which reduce lung function and make a horse prone to even more bleeding.
Regardless of what’s happening elsewhere, horses in the US do run less often and have shorter careers than they used to. Not all, or even most, of this decline can be blamed solely on Lasix. Breeding to sire lines prone to unsoundness (especially Mr. Prospector and Northern Dancer); corrective surgery on foals that don’t look good enough for the sale ring; kid-glove treatment of babies, denying them the opportunity to run around in the field as much as they used to; and trainers’ concerns for a high win percentage to attract owners, thus largely eliminating the old practice of racing a horse into shape, all play a part. And the rapid expansion of the foal crop in response to the boom market of the 1970s and 1980s meant that many more questionable mares were kept in production. But Lasix also enters into the equation. According to data presented at the Summit, bleeding is to some degree an inherited trait, and the more horses whose bleeding was controlled by Lasix go to the breeding shed, the more that trait will tend to appear in subsequent generation.
Despite all those negatives, US trainers’ argument that racing here differs from the rest of the world has some merit. Our industry differs significantly from other countries'. First, we run many more races per year – too many -- with (necessarily) shorter fields. We run much more on dirt, and less on turf, than other countries; it’s plausible that horses’ inhaling dirt and blowback from synthetic tracks leads to more lung problems than racing on grass. We have many more minor-league tracks, where the horse population consists disproportionately of older horses with an accumulation of infirmities; see the all-too-true description of the barely-fictionalized Mountaineer in Jaimy Gordon’s National Book Award-winning novel, Lord of Misrule. We have a lot more owners who don’t have inherited or self-made real wealth and therefore can’t afford to make a small fortune in racing by starting out with a big fortune. The local building contractor who, with a few pals, owns a couple of claimers, or the partnerships that appeal to average race fans, don’t like to see their horses shipped out to the farm for R&R; that means bills to pay with no purse money coming in. We have too many horses, even with the recent reduction in matings and foals crops following the 2008 financial crisis. And, three decades into the legal Lasix era, we have too many trainers and too many vets who’ve never had to manage bleeding without chemical assistance; a lot of lore in the heads of old-time trainers and vets has simply been lost.
For all these reasons, Lasix makes a good bit of sense in US racing.
But we have a problem of political and public perception that seems to me more important than a narrow balancing of the day-to-day pluses and minuses of Lasix. Even though, as reported by the NTRA’s pollster at the Summit, more racing fans today perceive the game as fair, and drug use under control, than was true three years ago, before the elimination of some steroids and the increased concern for track safety in the wake of Eight Belles’ collapse at the end of that year’s Kentucky Derby, drug use is still a huge perception problem. While most sports are seen as relatively clean, horse racing and cycling still carry a stigma, facts notwithstanding.
And the perception can lead to huge over-reaction. The bill currently before Congress that would require horses to race “drug-free,” whatever that means, and impose draconian penalties on even inadvertent violations, is a case in point. If racing doesn’t act, the public will continue to act, by betting ever-less on US racing, and the political system will impose its own over-the-top solutions. What a leader does in this situation is figure out where the followers (in this case the public that still cares about racing) is going and get out in front of them.
Part of the perception problem is that the public and politicians see vets entering horses’ stalls with a Lasix injection and assume that the vet could be giving a whole lot of other meds as well. The New York Racing Association has actually solved that problem by requiring that Lasix shots be given only by the official track vets, and not letting private vets in the stall before a race, but that’s an initiative no one knows about and is hardly likely to change the views who have weak knowledge and strong opinions.
Even if Lasix is good for horses, human athletes run or play through pain all the time; in fact, being able to do that is part of the definition of a great athlete. Humans, as contrasted to horses, are supposed to have some choice in the matter (though try telling that to an NFL lineman trying to hang onto his roster spot). Not all thoroughbreds are great athletes, and maybe some just shouldn’t be racing.
At the Summit, a variety of trainers and vets described training regimens that seemed to reduce the incidence of bleeding without resorting to race-day Lasix. These ranged from training horses away from the race track to at least giving them periodic breaks, both of which reduced the stress induced by full-time residence at the track. Stress levels do seem to be correlated with bleeding. Also, training patterns in most countries appear to involve more stamina work and less high-speed sprint breezes, in which a horse is performing at close to 100% of its potential. Even where horses are stabled at the track, the use of dust-free bedding and other similar management techniques can help ease the problem.
Given the current state of US racing, it’s not economically feasible for all owners and trainers to adopt such measures immediately. Owners at tracks where the win purse is $5,000 can’t afford to take their horses out of training, and trainers whose horses are primarily low-level claimers face the same pressure. Abolition of race-day Lasix might work for the upper end of the business, where owners either make a lot of money with their horses or have a lot of money to take care of them. That’s why the suggestion that graded stakes in the US become Lasix-free isn’t a bad starting point. Trainer Richard Mandella, one of the Summit participants, said he could live with such a ban. So that’s one place to begin. Another is with new two-year-olds. Two-year-old racing has already begun this year, but perhaps, starting with next year’s crop, Lasix could be banned in any race restricted to horses of a particular age: two-year-olds beginning in 2012, three-year-olds in 2013, etc. , for a phase-in period of perhaps five years, by which time most of the Lasix habitués would be retired. Or perhaps that ban would take effect only at, say, major league and “Triple A”-level tracks, perhaps those offering $125,000 and up in average overnight purses.
Whatever good Lasix does, we’re prisoners of public and politicians’ opinions. If we can’t change them, and the last decade suggests that we’ve had only limited success in that endeavor, than we need to adjust to save the industry. Trainers will need to develop new methods of dealing with bleeding, owners will have to adjust to new patterns for a horse’s career. The status quo regarding Lasix, no matter how justifiable it is in scientific terms, just can’t be maintained.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Lasix: What the Rest of the World Does
Science notwithstanding, it's true that, for whatever reason, the US and Canada stand alone among major racing jurisdictions in permitting race-day use of Lasix. Here's what other major racing countries do, as reported to the "Summit":
Australia: No race-day Lasix permitted, with a suggested withdrawal time of 48 hours (in practice, that means that a prudent trainer won't give a horse Lasix less than 4-5 days before a race). Trainers are permitted to use Lasix for horses in training, and some do before a breeze. Horses are reported as "bleeders" only if they show bilateral epitaxis (bleeding from both nostrils), either after a race or in training. Bleeding that is evident only on scoping, even at the performance-affecting 3/4 levels, doesn't count. If a horse is observed bleeding, then it's taken out of training for at least three months and isn't permitted to race again for at least three months, and then only after a 5/8ths-mile gallop with no bleeding.
France : Similar to Australia -- no race-day Lasix with a 48-hour withdrawal time, but Lasix use permitted in training at the trainer's discretion. No specific rules on barring horses that have been observed to bleed, but tthey do have to pass a vet exam before being allowed to race again.
Germany: Lasix appears to be banned both on race day and in training, and horses are banned for breeding purposes if they've ever raced on drugs, or if they've ever bled.
Hong Kong: The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which runs the tracks, licenses owners, trainers and jockeys, makes and administers the rules, and runs the test lab (a collection of power in a single entity that, I suspect, makes Frank Stronach salivate), does not permit Lasix either on race day or in training. There are two categories of "bleeders." If a horse bleeds from the nostrils, it's categorized as an "official bleeder" and cannot race for at least three months, pending an official vet exam. After a third bleeding episode, the horse is barred from racing for life. The second category is a horse that appears to the stewards to have performed below expectations, in which case the stewards can order a vet exam and, if the horse scores a 3 or 4 rating for blood in the trachea, then they're required to have an official vet exam after a track gallop and can't be entered in a race for at least two weeks. In the past five years, Hong Kong reports that 0.5% of all horses were "official bleeders," and another 0.6% were reported as having "substantial blood in the trachea." Over the same time period, just under 1% of the Hong Kong race horse population was compusorily retired because of bleeding.
Ireland: No Lasix on race day, though it can be used in training. The definition of bleeding is very tight, with only horses that bleed visibly at the nostrils being classified as bleeders and subject to mandatory time off before returning to the races. Under that definition, only some 0.15% of starters are labeled as bleeders.
Japan: Lasix is banned for 10 days prior to race day, though it may be used in training, subject to the 10-day limit. Bleeding is defined as visibly bleeding from the nostrils, with no specific rules about blood that's visible on a scope. Horses that bleed visibly are barred from racing for one month in the first instance, two months in the second, and three months in the third. Visible bleeding was reported in between 0.1% and 0.2% in most recent racing years in Japan.
Singapore: No Lasix permitted on race day, though it can be used in training up to 3 1/2 days prior to a race. Bleeding is defined as in Hong Kong, but is reported to occur in less than 0.5% of starters.
UAE (Dubai): No drugs permitted within 48 hours of post time, with a recommended three-day withdrawal period for Lasix, but Lasix is allowed in training. As in most of the other jurisdictions, bleeding is defined as bleeding visibly at the nostrils, and horses are barered from racing for gradually longer periods after each bleeding episode. The prevalence of bleeders is somewhat higher than in other jurisdictions, perhaps because of the climate, at about 0.4% of all starters.
United Kingdom: No Lasix on race day, though it can be used in training.
To summarize: all the major racing jurisdictions outside North America ban the use of Lasix on race day. Most jurisdictions, Hong Kong and Germany excepted, permit the use of Lasix in training, as long as it's not given within a defined period prior to a race. And most of the jurisdictions report very low rates of "bleeding," by which they almost all mean that a horse bleeds visibly from both nostrils; the rates range from a low of one per 1,000 starters up to a high, in Hong Kong and Singapore, of perhaps five per 1,000 starts.
So how can we reconcile the fact that, according to the South African study that I reported on yesterday, "most horses bleed," with the very low rates of bleeding reported in non-Lasix countries?
A few possible explanations stand out, though there's little science so far to prove or disprove any of them.
First, training practices differ substantially as between North America and most of the rest of the world. Here, most horses train at the race track, are exercised for comparatively short times, and get comparatively more speed work, with racing-speed breezes. Elsewhere, it's more common to train away from the track, in a less pressured atmosphere. It's notable that the relatively higher rates of bleeding in non-Lasix jurisdictions occur in those places -- Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai -- where horses do train at the race track.
Second, most jurisdictions' definitions of bleeding don't include horses that score a 3 or 4 when scoped, even though those hores are clearly compromised in performance. According to the South African study, nearly 10% of horses have serious tracheal bleeding without Lasix (reduced to essentially zero with Lasix), enough to affect their racing performance.
Third, there's much more dirt racing in the US than elsewhere. It's not clear how that affects the tendency to bleed, and the South African study was conducted with turf racing, not on dirt.
Fourth, there are racing style, distance and pedigree differences. More races in the US are at short distances, with horses running at maximum effort all the way. In many turf-racing jurisdictions, horses tend to gallop along, at less than maximum effort, for a good part of the race
Could US racing survive without race-day Lasix? It would undoubtedly require major changes in training patterns and, ultimately, in breeding patterns as well. Is it possible? That's a question for tomoorow's post.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
The Science of Lasix: a View from the "Summit"
There has already been considerable media coverage of this week’s “International Summit on Race Day Medication, EIPH and the Racehorse.” (See, e.g., here,here, and here.) But most of these reports offer the always-tempting us vs. them scenario: “rest of world presses US to eliminate race-day meds.” In fact, the summit was far more informative, and thought-provoking, than that simplistic view suggests. So informative and thought-provoking, in fact, that I will be reporting on it in a series of three blog posts. Today: the science of Lasix and EIPH (“bleeding” in race horses. Next, what the rest of the world actually does. And, finally, some thoughts on how to resolve the conflict between foreign and media pressure to ban all race-days drugs with the economic realities of racing in the US.
(Lots of the presentations at the Summit have been posted online here, so I'll forego the pictures of bloody trachea and scarred lungs.)
I had earlier commented on the Lasix issue, among other drug-related problems in racing, in a piece for the New York Times’ The Rail blog. I’m delighted that attending the “summit” yesterday deepened my understanding of Lasix and its costs and benefits. But, as we’ll see, understanding a problem doesn’t necessarily lead to a solution.
On to the science of Lasix, a topic almost entirely absent from the media reports on the summit.
The first question is how many race horses bleed under the stress of a race or a high-speed breeze? The answer depends on how you define “bleed.” If it means actually bleeding from the nostrils, then the answer is about 1%. If it mains showing even a trace of blood in the trachea when a horse is “scoped” after a race, then the answer is somewhere near 80%, plus or minus 10%. Obviously, the definition that you use determines the scope of the problem and therefore the appropriate solution.
Fortunately, there’s now pretty good evidence to help define the issue better. A recent study of several hundred race horses in South Africa, conducted by researchers from the US, Australia and South Africa and frequently cited at the Summit, used the common veterinary practice of grading bleeding that shows up when a horse is scoped on a scale of 1-4. In the study, 79% of horses showed some signs of blood after racing without Lasix, but so did 57% of those that raced with Lasix. So, while Lasix does reduce both the incidence and the severity of bleeding in a majority of horses, it doesn’t eliminate it. What Lasix does do is to reduce the pressure on the very thin capillaries in the horse’s lung by some 15-20%. And that in turn reduces the “remodeling” of blood vessels and scarring of the lung tissue, making them less likely to bleed next time.
Most horses that “bleed” have a score of 1 or 2 on the 1-4 scale. In the opinion of most of the vets who spoke at yesterday’s meeting, a score of 1 has no impact on a horse’s racing performance, and a score of 2 is more or less on the borderline for performance-affecting. All the vets agreed that severe bleeding (a score of 3 or 4) definitely has an impact on racing performance, as does actual bleeding from the nostril, which is seen in only 1% or so of horses. In the South African study, 20% of horses without Lasix didn’t bleed at all, another 45% bled only to the 1 level, and another25% at the 2 level. In contrast, among horses treated with Lasix pre-race, 43% didn’t bleed at all, 48% bled at the 1 level, and only 9% bled at the 2 level. Thus, some 9% of the horses in the study that did not get Lasix bled at a level that all vets agreed clearly compromised their racing performance, while none of those treated with Lasix bled at that level. Lasix “works,” and in this study at least, it created a level playing field by letting horses that are more likely to bleed perform up to their potential. In that sense, Lasix can be thought of as a performance “enabler” or “optimizer.”
Bleeding also tends to get worse over time, so a horse that starts on Lasix presumably has a lower lifetime incidence of bleeding than one that races without the drug. That effect, though, doesn’t seem to translate into more starts per season or per racing career. Since the introduction of Lasix as a permitted drug in the US, starts per season and starts per career, as reported in the Jockey Club’s Fact Book, have declined by some 25%, to a level that’s on a par with most of the rest of the (non-Lasix) world. One can’t necessarily blame the use of Lasix for the decline in the number of starts, but Lasix apparently hasn’t helped.
Of course, Lasix is also a performance enhancer. Horses treated with Lasix, in the aggregate, perform better than those without the drug. Part of the difference reflects Lasix’s ability to suppress the kind of bleeding that would otherwise interfere with a horse’s performance. And part undoubtedly reflects Lasix’s reduction in a horse’s weight; in the South African study, horses treated with Lasix lost an average of 28 pounds pre-race, while those treated with a placebo lost only 12 pounds. That 16-pound advantage would be considered significant by almost any handicapper. Whatever the mechanism, horses on Lasix do better. That’s why 95% of US race horses run on Lasix, even though, based on the South African study, fewer than 10% of those horses would bleed at a level that substantially interfered with their performance if they raced without the drug.
One thing that Lasix does not do, the vets at the Summit agreed, is mask other drugs that racing authorities test for. Modern testing techniques are very sophisticated, and the only jurisdiction that still believes Lasix interferes with other drug testing is Hong Kong, where Lasix is not permitted at any time, not just when a horse is racing. Hong Kong notwithstanding, the experts at the Summit convinced me that the “masking” argument is no longer valid as a reason for getting rid of race-day Lasix.
One of the most interesting aspects of yesterday’s scientific discussion was the surprising (for me at least) finding that the Flair nasal strip has much the same effect on bleeding as Lasix does. While the Flair’s human equivalent, the Breathe Right strip, appears to have little or no effect on human athletes’ performance, several of the vets in attendance yesterday said that the Flair strip did help in horses. Some trainers used the Flair strip a few years ago, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion and has been banned in some racing jurisdictions, even though its manufacturer is a sponsor of the NTRA’s Safety and Integrity Alliance. If its efficacy is confirmed by additional scientific studies, the Flair strip might be a viable substitute for Lasix.
Tomorrow: how other countries deal with bleeding.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
What Were the Koreans Thinking?
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Cuomo Picks an Easy Target
Friday, January 21, 2011
One Unnecessary Death is Too Many - UPDATE
UPDATE: When racing resumed today, after a snow day, the rails to the outer track remained closed while horse were on the inner track. Gotta give credit to NYRA for moving quickly once the problem was pointed out to them.
With apologies to Bob:
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many horses have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind, from The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, Copyright © 1962 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1990 by Special Rider Music
One unnecessary death of a thoroughbred is one too many. Yesterday at Aqueduct there was almost another one. Luckily, and no thanks to NYRA, the horse escaped injury. Since it was my – and my partners in Castle Village Farm’s – horse, I guess I take it personally.
Here’s what happened. Our horse, Iguazu, was entered in Aqueduct’s 3rd race, a $35,000 maiden claiming sprint on the Aqueduct inner track. Iguazu, a four-year-old by Smoke Glacken, missed his entire three-year-old season with knee problems, and yesterday would have been his third start since the layoff, coming after good 2nd- and 3rd-place finishes in the prior races. With a six-horse field, and only one “ringer,” (a Todd Pletcher drop-down), the small but enthusiastic group of partners in attendance had dreams of the winners’ circle.
But Iguazu, calm in the paddock and the post parade, became agitated in the starting gate and broke through the barrier, taking off around the track minus jockey David Cohen, who was unhurt and who returned to win the next race. Whether the presence of an assistant starter flicking his whip behind the gate had anything to do with Iguazu’s false start is something we’ll never know, since Iguazu is unlikely to tell us, but using whips at the gate is a dangerous practice, and something that rarely if ever happened when super horseman Bobby Duncan was NYRA’s starter.
In the event, Iguazu took off around the inner track, and the NYRA outriders apparently decided that, rather than giving chase, they’d let him have a seven-furlong workout. So the outriders congregated down on the clubhouse turn, where, it seemed, it should be relatively easy to corral a loose and presumably somewhat tired horse. But NYRA’s outrider crew, like the starting gate staff, seems to have fallen off from the days when it was the best in the country. Even though Iguazu slowed down and cantered into the trap the outriders had set up, somehow they failed to grab him and in fact set him off at a gallop once again, this time in the opposite direction, back toward the finish line in front of the grandstand. Iguazu, by this point thoroughly confused, burst through the temporary rail separating the inner track from the paddock area and then, to our horror, galloped on through a gap in the rail that blocked off the Aqueduct main track, which is closed in winter and which was under a layer of ice and snow.
Earlier this season, another horse had escaped onto the main track, skidded on the icy surface and crashed into a pole, fracturing bones and having to be put down. After that incident, NYRA supposedly adopted a policy that would keep horses off the outer track, putting up temporary rails to seal off the two gaps where horses could cross to the outer. Except that the policy itself seemed to have a gap in it.
The racing gods must have been watching, though, because Iguazu made it around the ice-covered main track and down the ramp into the barn area, where he was eventually caught by a backstretch worker near Barn 7. He returned safely to trainer Bruce Brown’s barn at Belmont, where today he seems in good shape and eager to return to the races. A brief report on the incident by Dave Grening of the Daily Racing Form is here.
Most of us in this business are not expecting to make money. As my previous posts have shown, it’s very difficult indeed to make a profit owning race horses in New York. We’re in the game because we love horses, and we love the thrill of the winners’ circle. So, when something stupid and unnecessary threatens the safety of our horses, we understandably get upset.
And allowing Iguazu to get on the hazardous outer track yesterday was unnecessary and showed both incompetence (possibly by the gate crew and certainly by the outriders) and stupidity (in designing a “safety” policy that is in fact unsafe).
I wrote to NYRA CEO Charlie Hayward this morning, seeking an explanation of why Iguazu had been permitted to get onto the outer track. To NYRA’s credit, I received a very prompt answer from NYRA’s horsemen’s liaison, former trainer Bruce Johnstone. Here’s Bruce’s email, and my reply:
I have been made aware of your concerns regarding our “not having the rail in place”. Please let me lead you through our premise as regards this situation. As pointed out this temporary rail was put into place after a previous bad outcome to a horse getting loose crossing the Main track prior to entering the Inner. The procedure is for the gaps in each temporary rail to be closed prior to the horses leaving the Paddock on the way to the Inner. When the horses have all entered the Inner, the gap rail is put into place. The attendant then opens the aforementioned gaps in both temporary rails on the Main. The reason for this is, when the race commences the field is being followed by both the human ambulance on the Inner and the Track Veterinarian on the Main. The gaps on the main are open in case an injury occurs past the wire and the vet needs to attend to the horse. In addition the horse ambulance is positioned on the Main and if needed it has access to Inner through this gap. Having said all this it didn’t help you as your horse took it to another level. If you would like to further discuss this you can reach me at –[deleted] – Hoping this gives you some picture of an actual protocol in place. Also glad he wasn’t injured.
And here’s my reply:
I understand the protocol. But I just think it's incredibly stupid, as it totally negates the reason for having the rail in place to begin with. Why not just position the track vet's SUV on the inner track to start with, If there's enough room for the ambulance on the inner track, there should be enough room for the vet as well. As for the horse ambulance, it would be a matter of seconds to have someone open the gaps on the main if there's an injury.
I understand NYRA's policy, but it ain't nearly good enough. How many dead horses will it take to come up with something better?
Well, my pointing out the fallacies in NYRA’s “protocol” may yet produce changes that will protect other horses. A subsequent message from Bruce Johnstone comments that “you are not offbase in your thoughts” and promises that he’ll be consulting with the powers that be at NYRA, in this case apparently Racing Secretary P J Campo and NYRA Executive VP/Chief Operating Officer Hal Handel. We’ll see.
I wonder if, on this as on so many other decisions, NYRA bothered to consult anyone who actually knew anything about horses. If they’d talked to almost any trainer beforehand, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t have been nudged toward something closer to my suggestions that would have actually increased safety, rather than leaving a large gap for a scared horse to run through.
Sorry about going on at this length, but when it’s your horse that’s almost killed by someone else’s stupidity, it’s difficult not to be upset.