Call it the 77-percent rule. In November, New York State Gaming Commission equine medical director Dr. Scott Palmer noted that 77 percent of the more than 100 Thoroughbreds formerly in the barns of trainers indicted this spring for the use of performance enhancing substances tested positive for the medication clenbuterol.
What’s more damning is that, in review of the medical records for those horses, Palmer and his team found no mention of clenbuterol administration. I took algebra, I know one plus one doesn’t always equal two – at least not right away or when x and y get involved or somebody introduces a negative number – but clearly horses who don’t need it are being given clenbuterol. And not just those 100 from the barns of Jorge Navarro, Jason Servis and others facing federal charges.
I don’t know whether to be sad, mad or disgusted. I know enough not to be flabbergasted. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Clenbuterol is supposed to address legitimate respiratory problems in horses, but has muscle-building properties akin to anabolic steroids so gets misused by trainers and veterinarians looking for an edge or looking to keep up.
Either way it’s not good, and points to a huge hole in the regulation of Thoroughbred racing. Despite the good work of Dr. Palmer, whose remarks came in a Nov. 11 telephone meeting to update stakeholders on the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities (which is making progress), and others, racing still has a drug problem.
We only know it because the FBI charged people and regulators were able to isolate 100 or so horses from the barns of indicted trainers to test. What about other horses? Other barns? Other trainers? What about all those horses now that they’re back racing for other trainers? Shouldn’t this be an alarm bell for regular and robust out-of-competition testing? Until American racing has that, the sport’s regulation might as well be an arcade game. Just keep putting quarters in the machine. You’ll win now and then, but all you’ll really do is keep playing.
On the plus side, the strategic plan led by Palmer and Alan Foreman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association is paying off with a 33 percent decrease in equine fatalities per 1,000 starts (from 1.78 to 1.21) in 2020 compared to 2019. That development can be credited to a variety of steps taken by the region’s racing jurisdictions including:
- A prohibition on the stacking (use of more than one) of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications the week of a race.
- A transfer of joint injection records for claimed horses. • Necropsies on equine fatalities.
- A mortality review board.
- Voidable claim rules. Every Mid-Atlantic racing jurisdiction adopted those changes. All but West Virginia (which requires legislation) also put in place a 48-hour withdrawal time for all NSAIDs, harsher penalties on NSAID overages and a 14-day withdrawal time for joint injections.
The changes make horses safer, and also work toward putting trainers on equal footing – which might be the most important piece of any wholesale overhaul of racing regulations. Owners and trainers who follow best practices and adhere to regulations are at a disadvantage if others aren’t being held accountable. Nationally, much of the reform debate has centered on race-day use of the anti-bleeding medication Lasix and federal legislation called the Horse Racing Integrity Act. Palmer’s clenbuterol findings show that Lasix isn’t really an integrity issue. Lasix is regulated. Clenbuterol and other substances are the integrity issue. They clearly are not regulated well enough, and everybody suffers for it.
What a difference a year makes. In the fall of 2019, Maryland sire Imagining was still being treated for burns suffered in a barn fire at Anchor and Hope Farm. He’d been let out of his stall – next to the fire’s source – just in time, ran loose around the farm while the barn burned to the ground and was discovered in nearby woods – shaken, hurt, but alive.
“He was just watching the whole scene from back there,” Anchor and Hope’s Louis Merryman said then of finding the Grade 1 winner in the woods. “You could tell he wasn’t himself. Normally, when you go to catch Imagining, he’s banging you with his head. But he just stood there. It was almost like, ‘I get it; you need to help me.’ ”
Imagining recovered, so did the farm. And this fall, a year and a few months since that fire, Anchor and Hope was celebrating as Imagining’s son Monday Morning Qb ran away with the Maryland Million Classic at Laurel Park Oct. 24. Part of the stallion’s first crop, the Maryland-bred was already his sire’s first stakes winner and won for the third time in seven starts as trainer Butch Reid debated a graded stakes try next.