Performance Enhancing Devices – Good or Bad?

June 30, 2014

It was quite an exciting week in the sport of kings once again both on and off the track. We’ll discuss more about that a bit later on. First I wanted to touch base on and clarify some points about a serious issue in the game.

The term Performance Enhancing or Performance Enhancing Devices is frequently used in sports today. Our game is no different and may actually be the leader of the pack. While no recognized statistics can tell us that’s the case, there is enough general information combined with common sense and knowledge of human nature that tells us it is at the least an argument.

To discuss this intelligently and also objectively, one needs to have at least a basic knowledge of what performance enhancing and performance enhancing devices actually mean and the difference between them. Performance enhancing can include most anything that achieves this result. Further not all things in that category are necessarily bad and some are in fact good. Feed, vitamins and supplements and a proper diet can all be PE factors especially when those are not the norm or not what the horse has been accustomed to. So can proper veterinarian care and the addressing of chronic horse ailments which often go ignored. Healthy teeth and gums, ulcers, breathing issues can all have negative impacts on a horse’s performance on the racetrack so correcting these issues with things good for the animal is a positive and can also have a PE effect. Good trainers know all this and much more and do it routinely and knowing those outfits from the ones that don’t or use shortcuts can be a very rewarding handicapping angle. You do not have to cheat to win and be a high percentage and successful outfit but you do have to know about and care about horses. This is especially true off a barn change or claim.

It was no secret I was against California Chrome being allowed to wear his nasal strip in the Belmont Stakes. Yes a nasal strip is a performance enhancing piece of equipment and yes it’s something I also think is harmless and very good for the horse. I was against it because I did not think it was fair to past participants of racing in NY who were forced to race without them or even disqualified for wearing one. I also thought it was inappropriate to change the rules during an ongoing series to favor one horse over another. At the end of the day I agree with horses being allowed to wear them in all jurisdictions.

When I wrote about this and indicated the nasal strip was in fact a performance enhancing device I took my share of heat, to which I’ve become accustomed. Many people blasted me that this was not a performance enhancing device and was inconsequential. Not correct. A recent study by the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine concluded that the nasal strip is not simply cosmetic but has both health and PE advantages for the horse. This is a good thing and if you’re a trainer and not using them I ask why? It certainly isn’t cost. A credit to trainers like Peter Walder and Doug O’Neil who have been using them as far back as I can remember. There are others and it is time for Brisnet, Equibase, Timeform US and the Daily Racing Form to start tracking and listing this information in past performances. This is something that would solely benefit the bettor so let us not hold our breaths. The study, part of which was conducted on treadmills showed the strips tented the airways and held them open. They reduce bleeding, reduce secondary infections that damage the lung afterwards and help the horse perform better. While the focus of the study was the positive health benefits it also acknowledged they can help a horse run faster and even longer by reducing fatigue.

When we talk performance enhancing devices, we are now adding drugs to the equation. This includes legal, therapeutic, and unfortunately illegal drugs. In the Sport of Kings we have been forced to address the use of things as bizarre as cobra venom and frog juice. We deal with thyroid medicine as a matter of routine in some barns and until recently dealt with steroids. Things like cobra venom and frog juice and even rhino horn cream shouldn’t warrant much discussion and anyone who uses them illegally should be banned from the game plain and simple. Participation is a privilege and not a given right. A huge problem area is the use of legal and therapeutic drugs within the rules but stretching them to over use. This overuse and even abuse includes using not for the intended purpose, using not only when needed, and of course as a performance enhancing device. This becomes a difficult thing to police and gets very subjective. The only solution I see that is safe and plausible is no race day medication. This has worked in other jurisdictions and that should go a long way that it can work here in the US. In fact it has worked in US racing in the past.

One of the most widely used and misused drugs is Lasix and it has indeed changed the game to some extent. To get a realistic handle on Lasix and its effect on the game one only has to look at the jurisdictions where it is not allowed on race days and the overall health, success and longevity of those horses. To put it in a closer to home perspective let’s look at New York racing both before and after the legalization of race day Lasix. Back in the pre-Lasix era New York racing was the benchmark for the entire country, Kentucky, Florida and California included. You pretty much could not win a championship without racing there. New York horses who actually needed Lasix where forced to ship to lesser circuits where it was legal to compete and thus became known as second stringers. Things were not broke yet. What we as New York bettors knew back then was that Lasix was PE. I made several trips across the bridge to New Jersey and The Meadowlands to cash nice price tickets on horses with poor New York form racing first time Lasix. Things became broken when after the legalization of Lasix in New York racing kind of morphed into a philosophy of let’s give it to all horses whether they actually need it or not. Veterinarians began scoping all horses regularly and if finding even a speck of what might be blood put the horse on Lasix. This still happens routinely.

Lasix prevents the proper hydration of the equine athlete which is essential to a healthy and successful recovery after a competition. While true there are medical positives which help a bleeder perform competitively the long term negatives outweigh the positives. The simple solution is if your horse cannot race successfully and safely and healthy without Lasix get him right so he can. Having almost the entire breed on a drug many of them do not need and primarily for the PE values is polluting the entire bloodline. This passes down in foals and is part of why our horses race less often and do not have the longevity they used to. We discussed the Triple Crown winners who raced without it and were able to run in other races during the series. We can’t even fathom that today. The recovery Lasix prevents through dehydration cannot be made up long term or fixed with other drugs and the breed as a whole suffers because of it. Forego, John Henry, Secretariat, Tentam, Buckpasser, Damascus, Dr. Fager, and countless others ran with no Lasix in New York. The proof is there for those who care to see it.

I cannot say I was surprised when I heard Dale Romans got into it a bit on the Churchill Downs backside with Indian Charlie aka Ed Mussleman recently. What I found surprising was it took as long as it did. I have read Indian Charlie for years and even as a satire it has a tendency to go too far and take cheap shots at people and do it repeatedly. As we said back in Brooklyn ,that’s a fight in my neighborhood. Even if true which I have no idea about you don’t write about someone the way Indian Charlie wrote about Dale and some others and not expect to be called out. Not to condone fighting at this stage of the game but this one was coming.

We also had a trainer go after a rider at the weigh in after a race. There is not much you can say about this conduct other than it should not be acceptable. I’ll leave that one there.

While all the attention seems to be on Gold Cup winner Majestic Harbor for his runaway score earning him a Grade 1 and win and you’re in to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I didn’t think it was the performance of the day by a long shot. While a nice victory for sure, it looked way better than it actually was due to the suicide pace set by Fury Kapcori under Gary Stevens who pretty much assured after a half, a closer was going to win it. Mike Smith aboard favored Game on Dude kept the old guy as far off it as he could but that wasn’t near far enough. Majestic Harbor, a half to Arkansas Derby winner Danza, benefited the most and rolled home. He got the last quarter in 26 and he’ll need to pick that up some to contend in the Classic. It’s not every day we see two of the smartest riders in the world set up a race that way but sometimes it’s just the way it unfolds.This takes nothing away from his victory which was pretty to watch and the excellent ride by Tyler Baze, who is riding very well, nor the excellent job of his trainer, Sean McCarthy having him primed for his best on the big stage.

The performance that caught my eye was by DeClassify. This horse has been fast from day one and if he continues to stay right and sound, he is fast and good enough to win the Breeders’ Cup sprint. He’s obviously had his issues necessitating some layoffs and it took him a start this go around to be at his best but from a tough rail draw he came again running fast the whole way to capture the Triple Bend. He can motor.

We saw Untappable continue to dominate a bunch of 3 year old fillies she is better and faster than. That race also looked better than it was. A lot of races look visually impressive when the field is out classed by a faster animal.

In addition to the excitement of the upcoming meets at Saratoga and Del Mar, we have some interesting columns coming up. In one we will go inside a very special and classy barn and outfit that I expect to be around a long time. In another we’ll look at a bug boy rider going out there and making his dream a reality.

High 5

Congratulations to Sean McCarthy on his first Grade 1 victory.

Irad Ortiz Jr. for showing what toughness and determination really is. Irad went down hard only to return the following day and go back to work riding as if nothing happened. RIP Roses for Romney.

Low 5

Juan Vazquez. Can’t throw punches at the weigh in.

Horses to Watch

DeClassify, BC Sprint material.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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