Ahead of the Kentucky Derby, Mike Tierney looks at the sinister side of the sport: drugs.
A darker picture behind the glamour of horse racing
On the first Saturday of May, US horse racing celebrates its finest hour - well, two minutes, to be precise - with the Kentucky Derby. Timeless yet contemporary, it is an annual reminder that this sport can be as captivating as any.
The Derby scene is a vivid painting come to life, soundtracked by the crowd's roar and horses' hoofbeats, making it a joyous assault on the senses.
For years, the Derby's wondrous noise has drowned out an inconvenient truth: thoroughbreds in America are being drugged almost to the point of animal cruelty.
The routine administering of various potions, designed ostensibly to lengthen their careers, is also shortening their lives.
Some 3,600 horses died from 2009 to 2011 while racing or training in the US, according to a New York Times data study. About 6,600, a figure that is trending upwards, broke down or displayed indications of injury.
It is hardly coincidence that, as the newspaper's analysis found, trainers were caught 3,800 times medicating horses illegally. Because few horses are tested, the actual number of infractions is far greater.
Violations with banned drugs tell just one chapter of the story. In every race at every track, horses can be legally plied with the diuretic furosemide, commonly known as Lasix. Trainers justify the injections as preventing internal bleeding in horses.
Some studies slightly support their contention, although side effects are not assessed and the rare few who eschew furosemide tend to report no problems. Advocates for outlawing the stuff harp on long-term drawbacks.
As horsemen on both sides of the picket fence acknowledge, furosemide enhances performance. Otherwise, more trainers would resist it.
Shoot them up with truth serum and how many would endorse nixing the needle but deploy it now to avoid a competitive handicap?
How is a drug-addled sport desirable? Humans are different from horses, but other institutions from baseball and football to the Olympics are striving to disinfect themselves, thus building more trust with fans.
Across both ponds, racing somehow manages to thrive with far fewer permissible drugs and none on race days. Penalties for offenders are considerably stiffer.
Gary Stevens gained fame as an American jockey but also rode across Europe and in Hong Kong. He described racing overseas to a government subcommittee on Monday as "pure and simple," saying he could not recall a horse breaking down there.
"If there is no race day medication, you'd solve a lot of problems," he said.
At least the Derby, while likely the cleanest and most legitimate of any race in America, has presented opportunities to reopen the debate.
In 2008 eight, moments after Eight Belles finished in second place, the popular filly collapsed with two broke ankles and was put down as millions of viewers in person and on television cringed.
Though Eight Belles had not been the pin cushion that other horses become, casual followers were exposed by media to the abuses prevalent in lesser races.
Last year, Animal Kingdom's win gave the stable owner Barry Irwin, a champion of drug-free racing, a megaphone to campaign for stricter regulations.
"If we've got to juice these horses up just to compete, then we don't really have a viable sport," he recently told The Times.
Purging the sport of drugs will not eliminate fatalities nor allow every horse to race as senior citizens.
What it will do is assure that these athletes are treated more humanely and, not insignificantly, ease doubt among some fans that the game is rigged in favour of the trainers with the craftiest pharmacists.
Some racing authorities are starting to see the light, if only a glimmer.
The New York State board elected on Monday to limit purse money offered in lower-level races to deter the running of physically unsound horses.
A disproportionate number of deaths at a meeting this year raised concern that higher purses were tempting trainers to compromise their judgement.
Yet, two weeks earlier, the Kentucky racing commission decided against prohibiting furosemide.
The vote margin was closer than a nose - seven-seven, with eight yeas required to pass - so there is hope.
Proponents of the status quo complained that, as the first state to ban the anti-bleeding drug, it would become disadvantaged, with horses heading elsewhere.
So Kentucky, which views itself as an industry leader, opted not to lead toward a brighter tomorrow when it had the chance.
Like the grand race there on the first Saturday in May, the crusade to rid horse racing of unnecessary and harmful drugs is more of a marathon than a sprint. The finish line lies ahead but, unless reform happens, the sport might drop dead before it gets there.
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