12/23/2001 12:00AM

Breeders wary of 'improving' stock

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Amidst the concern about drug use in racing, there is a realization that this issue has importance that goes beyond racing commissioners, veterinarians, trainers, and the tracks. It is of primary significance to breeders, who are potentially the most affected by the latent problems of medication in racing.

Most observers would not mention breeders as greatly affected by medication and its problems; they are snugly tucked away on the farms, planning matings and growing young stock who will be the champions of the future. But drugs confuse and harm breeders and their operations, just as they may damage the fortunes of some people who work on the racetrack.

The essence of a drug is that it is something that alters the horse's ability or performance in some way. Using this definition, Tony Morris, the most respected European commentator on breeding, once wrote a column about gelding being the ultimate drug, since it permanently altered many a horse's attitude about the game.

Considered in that light, gelding is a very powerful drug and has the power to improve greatly some horses who are too tough in their behavior or too unfocused in their racing. One very important distinction between gelding and other "drugs," however, is that there is no question of a residual effect on the next generation. A gelded horse cannot reproduce, and therefore, any faults of temperament or character the horse possessed are not passed on.

But a primary point of concern among breeders is the use of medication on horses and its effect on their use for breeding. As a leading breeder and consignor once told me, "Pedigree is nothing more than the tabulation of racing performance," and an incorrect record of horses' racing ability has ripple effects throughout the breed.

If, on the one hand, a medication damaged a horse's ability to reproduce, that would end the drug's effect on the breed, but of much greater concern to breeders and the long-term welfare of the sport is whether drugs distort racing results, which determine the premium breeding material for the next generation. As one leading breeder mentioned to me, "You always wonder just how much help some of these horses had."

If medications are covering up unsoundness in a horse or an infirmity that might have prevented it from showing top form, then the animal is likely to pass on its problems. Also, and even more crucial to a breeder's understanding of racing form, some medications are at least alleged to make horses run faster. As a result, these horses have better race records, larger earnings, and seem to be better prospects for breeding the next generation of racehorses.

Medication also creates a stain of suspicion around certain horses. Their trainers acquire a reputation for using the latest medication, and the horses, whether at fault or not, are penalized in the perception of knowing breeders.

The uncertainties about the quality of our horses is not limited to American breeders, as those overseas are even more perplexed. The question of defining the very best horses on their merits alone was the focal point of some commentary from European breeders not many years ago. They did not like sending their stock to America and racing against medicated horses. Nor did they like trying to breed from horses who had considerable medication in their racing history.

One commentator even went so far as to say that we could do what we like with our everyday racing stock but that the best should never be allowed to race with medical assistance. Their reasoning is logical and based on Darwinian principles. They believe that using medication allows faulty stock to perform at an optimum level, and that, contrary to the survival of the fittest, the American program of widespread medication allows many of the unfit not only to survive but to prosper and pass on their problems to succeeding generations.

Clearly, we need a way to discriminate between the average horses and the very best, and medication only clouds the issue. Perhaps one way to begin clearing the way is to follow a suggestion made by Richard Mandella that all horses in Grade 1 races should be given a supertest. Then they would be clear of any stigma of taint.

Combining such a proposition with the raceday medication policy proposed by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (Lasix only) would be a major step toward setting the proper selection of our bloodstock on a firm foundation.

Even breeders who agree with these principles are pierced on the thorns of this problem. If they follow their inclinations about medication, they have to give their horses more time off and make sure they are trained by the best trainers. And if they race horses without medication, are they giving away an advantage to their competition and thereby making their stock appear inferior when it comes to the marketplace?

A well-reasoned medication program would help to eliminate these questions and dissipate some of the problems that have arisen over the past 30 years.