28 April 2011

Drugs In Racing: We Need Transparency First

Recently, I did a post on the drugs and treatment that are most likely being used, and for the most part, flying below the radar.

The latest movement out there is the idea that getting rid of race day medication will clean up the game, creating a positive public perception.

As I outlined in my blog piece, race day medication (which is pretty much Lasix) is just the tip of the iceberg as far as performance enhancers go. And the jury is still out regarding whether cutting out Lasix would be more humane or less humane when looking at race horses collectively.

The most logical argument I see against Lasix is the one that looks at average starts per year in the 60's and 70's versus average starts per year today. But lets not forget that they were testing for a lot less back then, and you could be sure that something was being used to prevent or curtail bleeding back then on known bleeders.

Also one could argue that because of high Stake purses for 2 year olds and three year olds, and a need for quick returns by breeders, coupled with the fact that would be bleeders could now become Grade One Stake winners and then become highly sought in the breeding shed, that today's race horse is bred to be less durable than yesteryear's race horse.

So what is banning Lasix going to accomplish? Well, if Bill Finley is correct on his assertions that Lasix masks a bunch of banned concoctions, then some "Super Trainers" will see a decrease in their win percentage.

Horses will still break down, so forget about getting the PETA types to go away.

As for gamblers, I maintain that drugs in horse racing is just another smokescreen excuse used by Horseplayers for why they are thinking about quitting. It really boils down to having their bankrolls last, and drug cheaters only add fuel to already high takeouts, for if someone is using the inside drug information when betting, they are causing even lower payoffs than what normal takeout rates create.

In other words, getting rid of drugs might take away some of the backstretch edge, allowing for Horseplayers to last longer collectively, but it is highly unlikely that it will draw more players into the game. We need much lower track takeouts to accomplish that. We need visible long term winners in the game, so that newbies have a reason to buy a bunch of handicapping books or software.

But what would getting rid of drugs do to horsemen and horses today? Chances are that the breed is weaker, and getting rid of drugs will cause less starts. We are already seeing a shortage of owners and horses today, and this shortfall is going to get worse as less horses are bred over the next few years because of the cost of owning a horse is too high, and much of that is because in order to compete to make money, owners have to spend quite a lot on vet bills. It is an ugly Catch 22 situation right now.

As for the horsemen, I wonder if today's generation of trainer knows how to efficiently train a horse drug free in North America. There is no way they will be for a banning of drugs.

Decisions need to be made on the basis of not only tomorrow but today. Banning of drugs now will most likely kill the game. I hate to say that, but it is reality.

Banning of drugs and certain procedures have to be done methodically, and nothing is better than full transparency.

The first thing to do is to get every jurisdiction on the same page. The game is broken right now, and it needs to go in a different direction. But all participants have to go in the same new direction.

Second, make a list of legal substances and procedures. Lasix, go with it for now (maybe slowly cut the dosage). Tapping, allow it too. But document it. Maybe consider race day usage of Bute and Banomine to try to get everyone on an equal playing field for now while cutting down vet bills substantially, making the game more affordable for new owners. Oxygen treatments, again document it.

Make it clear that any drugs or treatment not on the list are not permitted and that if used, the trainers will get the book thrown at them (preferably criminal charges too). There definitely needs to be a list of legal drugs and procedures and a huge deterrent not to use something else or the idea of banning anything becomes the same joke it is today.

Now the tricky part. When I state that when a horse is tapped it should be documented, the same with oxygen chamber treatments, this information should appear in the past performances.

We are now in the 21st Century. Things have changed. There is no longer 40,000 people filling a race track on a Saturday. There is no good reason for lack of transparency. From a bettor's standpoint, we have every right to know when a horse was tapped, gelded, had a throat operation, etc. Why should the owner, the trainer and some of the trainer's staff be the only ones to know this, and possibly profit on it at the windows? If this happened in the real world (ie the stock market), it is called insider trading and if caught, a jail sentence might happen. Yet bettors are complacent when it comes to this and some actually wager on the basis of seeing stable money on a horse. Why is this acceptable today?

Put this stuff in the form. Again, by eliminating advantages the stable has, the regular Horseplayers will all last a little longer. This can only help the game. Horse racing cannot afford to lose even one more player.

Horseplayers will love this stuff to begin with at least, as it will lead to additional statistics and angles. Most Horseplayers love angles, especially ones that are based on objective data.

As for the claiming game. Well, it takes away a lot of the "poker" action some trainers like to play when dropping a horse. But so what? Inevitably, full disclosure will lead to more claiming and more owners as the new potential owner will have a lot more information on the potential purchase.

At first, owners may shy away from horses that have too many procedures, but as time goes by, patterns will emerge, and trainers will still be able to play a little poker. Meanwhile, claiming owners will go into the game with a lot more confidence.

Take a look at major league sports. Trades are now void most of the time if the new acquisition fails a physical. Why should horse racing be the complete opposite of this? Especially when the two biggest growth components are bettors and owners.

I can't stress it enough, but deterrents are the key. There might be an inclination for some trainers to continue with shenanigans unless certain rules are in place. I think what makes sense is that vets have to report each procedure to the racing office (who reports it to Equibase), but the trainer too, has to report all procedures at the time of entry to the race office as well. Both the vet and the trainer will be subject to a huge fine and lengthy suspension if they don't comply 100%.

The same thing would be true of anything that goes on outside of a racetrack, like hyperbaric oxygen treatments. The owner of the center has to report any horse that is treated, as well, the trainer has to report at the time of entry. If reporting doesn't occur by the center, they are subject to a fine and lose their ability to treat licensed race horses.

This is how it should be, and this is how it has to be. Full transparency will eventually rule out the bad drugs and procedures and it will also pinpoint the permissible drugs and treatments over time. And it might not even take that much time at that. Regulators will soon see what combinations leads to more races, and more importantly, which might lead to a higher percentage of racetrack deaths and changes can be made very quickly and effectively to truly clean up the game.

Don't get me wrong. I think it would be great if horses only raced on hay, water, and oats. But we are a good decade plus away from even considering that.

Banning of drugs in the long term could be fantastic for the game, as many horses will not be able to compete at the higher levels. OK wait, this is where I'm going with this. The horses that can compete at higher levels are more likely to become household names, because there will be fewer of them. We might see more Triple Crown winners, for example. Besides winning Horseplayers, horse racing needs super stars to get the newbies and tire kickers to get involved.


Anonymous said...

hi cangamble. a little off topic but the passing of bill marko is very tragic. at the time of his death bill was essentialy a homeless person. w.e.g gave him a room at the dorm but he was virtually unemployable. his fall from canadas leading trainer to homeless is an unbelieveable tale. he lies in the morgue with his body unclaimed by his family. a very sad ending

Scott said...

got to disagree strongly here - surely racing horses continually on drugs weakens the breed, hides their flaws and then passes it onto the next generation.... a bit like royal in-breeding?