At the Risk of Beating a Dead Horse, the Sport of Kings is in Trouble
Putting down galliant fillies like Eight Belles is only one of horse racing's serious problems
Tomorrow, Lone Star Park holds one of its biggest days of the year, and after a disastrous and embarrassing Kentucky Derby, horse racing could use some good news. Maybe that’s why Lone Star Park is trotting out the nation’s only female bugler to play the Call to the Post.
How progressive of them.
The bugle call does give me goose bumps, growing up in a horse racing family and all, but if the sport really wanted to do something progressive it would start with its cheats.
I wrote about one of the sport’s biggest cheats last summer, but don’t think for a second that Arlington’s Steve Asmussen is one bad apple in a barrel full of good ones. Lost in all the hand-wringing over the filly Eight Belles’ ugly collapse at Churchill Downs last week is the fact that the winning horse was trained by Richard Dutrow, a former coke-head that has five doping suspensions in six states.
I couldn’t care less about Dutrow’s personal drug problems, but the fact that the guy dopes up his horses is reason enough he should be out of the sport. But he isn’t -- not by a long shot.
What Dutrow does, what Asmussen does is par for course -- it’s what all big-time trainers do. The problem, besides the fact that no one gives a rat’s ass, is that it’s killing the sport.
Modern-day horse racing has two problems. Horses are no longer bred to be sound, they are bred to be fast, and as a result their bones have become more brittle, which is one reason why Big Brown was the first Kentucky Derby winner in history to have just three starts under his belt before the Run for the Roses. The second problem, as the great turf writer William Nack noted way back in 1993 for Sports Illustrated, is drugs. And not just the illegal stuff, like snake venom (which trainer Patrick Biancone was busted for last year), but also legal drugs like lasix, which suppresses bleeding from the lungs, or phenylbutazone (commonly known as bute), which reduces inflamation in the joints. It’s rare to find a horse that doesn’t run on one of those.
To make a long history lesson short, all drugs were once banned from horse racing. In fact, in 1968 a horse named Dancer’s Image was stripped of its Kentucky Derby win when stewards found traces of bute in the colt’s blood. In the ensuing years the horse racing powers that be argued that because horses were no longer as sound as they had been in Man o’ War’s day, drugs like lasix and bute were necessary. The problem with this logic, as one horseman recently told me, is that a bleeder breeds a bleeder. In other words, a horse that needs lasix to stop the bleeding in its lungs will in all likelihood breed a horse that needs lasix to stop the bleeding in its lungs.
In a 1992 article in The North American Review entitled “The Corruption of Nobility: The Rise and Fall of Thorougbred Racing in America,” an anti-doping veterinarian named Gregory Ferraro wrote, “In general, treatments used to repair a horse’s injuries and to alleviate its suffering are now often used to get the animal out onto the track to compete-to force the animal, like some punch-drunk fighter, to make just one more round.”
Which is more or less what happened in 2006 at a track in Louisiana when a horse Asmussen trained pulled up lame during a race. Racing stewards later found the horse had been running on 750 times the legal amount of a drug called mepivicaine, which is used to block pain. Asmussen says he doesn’t know how the drug ended up in the system -- he blames a veterinary mistake -- but it seems like more than a coincidence that just seven days before the race he had ordered a cortisone shot for the horse’s knee.
The problem with all this is that because elite horses today are more fragile than they have ever been, and because they are really racing for a spot in the stud barn and not the winner’s circle, they are making fewer and fewer starts. From a fan’s perspective, this makes following a horse, rather than just a number, tough to do. Which is why most tracks at the country are inhabited by degenerate gamblers (Lone Star Park is an exception) that couldn’t give a shit about a horse’s name, to say nothing of what drugs are coursing through its system.
But the bigger problem is that the sport itself is institutionally opposed to cracking down on its cheaters. Why? Because they control the game.
When Asmussen blows into town with a string of horses, he fills a barn with winners, which fills the stands with gamblers who know a bet on an Asmussen horse has a good chance of a return. And in the end, from cradle to grave, that’s what horse racing is about anyway: Money.
I guess in that way, it’s like every other sport. The only difference is, its athletes have no voice.
You know what the saddest part is? In spite of all this, I’m going to be standing there Saturday, getting goose bumps when the bugle calls. But I'm in the minority. Horse racing is dying, and until the sport cleans itself up, its slow decline will continue. -- Jesse Hyde
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.