“. . . the end is not in question. It’s the means – the dreadful uncertainty of the means.”
John Steinbeck was writing about race relations in America in 1962 when he finished a paragraph in Travels with Charley, in Search of America with that. It’s a punch of a sentence, or two sentences I guess. A hard, quick punch. Bap. And then it’s gone. You want to read it again, even though you know you’ll get punched.
Steinbeck had just witnessed organized protests of a single black child attending a public school in New Orleans. He’d talked to people, picked up hitchhikers, taken the pulse of a community even without really trying to do so. While many in the country could not, he could see the end – though you could argue that nothing has truly ended, only changed.
The author’s description made me think of racing. When it comes to reform, the end is not in question. Just the means, and they are full of uncertainty.
Just like the rest of the world, American Thoroughbreds will race without the anti-bleeding medication Lasix someday. Like it or not. Support it or not. It’s coming.
There will be a national governing body with totally uniform rules, penalties and the rest. The doping will stop, or at least today’s version of doping (whatever that is) will stop.
Whip rules will be standardized.
Stewarding will be the same, in all states.
Safer synthetic surfaces will find another foothold.
Already important, horse welfare will play an even bigger role.
All that – and more – is the end. How we get there, that’s the means. Some say it will take an act of Congress, a new racing law to replace the various state laws which govern racing now. Others say federal legislation is the wrong path, that it will ruin racing. Regardless, the path will rise, fall, twist and turn like a Pennsylvania road with two lanes and a three-digit number and racing will go for a ride.
I’m pro-Lasix, or at least pro-Lasix with an eye on the future. Racing should keep Lasix, but stop blaming it for things like breakdowns or a weakening of the breed. It’s a highly regulated medication that stops exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhaging. If you’ve ever seen a horse bleed from its lungs, you know why many trainers don’t want to see Lasix discontinued. Lasix isn’t perfect. There’s a negative. Maybe Lasix use does dehydrate horses so much that each race takes a bigger toll, shortens careers, impacts health. I know too many horses are on it, just because it’s there. But don’t get rid of it. Manage it. Decrease maximum dosages, experiment with Lasix-free races, change the requirements to use Lasix the first time. I’ve been told by trainers and veterinarians that longer races produce fewer incidents of bleeding, because the horses run slower and experience less stress. Write more of those. At some point, take stock of Lasix and make an educated, non-knee jerk decision.
The reform movement somehow links Lasix with cheating. Lasix isn’t cheating. Lasix might be the only thing that keeps the cheaters from winning ALL the races. Take it away, and you’ll punish the trainer who follows the rules, who doesn’t push the envelope, who can’t hire the right (or wrong) person.
I’m pro national rules for medication thresholds, testing protocols, penalties, licensing, officiating, record-keeping and anything else you can name. Thoroughbred racing in North America (hello, Canada) should be conducted under one set of rules. Period. The end. If that’s not the goal, then we’re wasting time. There’s just too much crossover. Too many horses move from one circuit to another, too many trainers maintain divisions in multiple states to continue with the state-by-state regulation. I concede we’ve made lots of progress, but progress isn’t enough. Try selling progress to people who only watch racing during the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup or when HBO’s Real Sports dives into deaths at the racetrack.
Is legislation the answer? I don’t know. House and Senate versions of the Horse Racing Integrity Act have been introduced now. Breakdowns fuel more public support, as does the simple passing of time. Racing ought to be negotiating a different version of the bill – one that sets aside Lasix (for now). Put Lasix in the cupboard and work on everything else. People want concrete rules for therapeutic medication, out-of-competition testing, a penalty system with teeth and fairness, uniform stewarding, standardized pre-race protocols and a few dozen other things. Figure them out. Lasix can wait. The rest really can’t.
While we’re here, I’m for smaller stud books. Bring more stallions to the fore, spread the gene pool. I’m for more synthetic tracks. They produce fewer breakdowns and ought to be part of the future. I’m for extending the window on therapeutic medication use. Now, some drugs can be given within 24 hours of a race (whether they have an effect or not is debatable, but trainers still do it). Make it 36, then 48. Then see if fewer trainers do it at all. I’m for better technology. How can more horses get access to therapeutic treatments – hyperbaric chambers, cold water spas, salt therapy, acupuncture, massage, chiropractic and so on? Cost is a huge factor here, but couldn’t the hundreds of millions of dollars generated for racing by casino gambling help subsidize horse health in addition to purses?
Do all that, some of that, any of that and we’re getting somewhere. Think about the end for a moment and maybe the means won’t look so dreadful.