05/01/2013 10:24AM

Keith Gisser: Taking on the medication issue


Equine medications have been in the news a great deal lately. Trainer Lou Pena trying to find a home, the Godolphin steroid incident, and even a recent piece on horse racing on National Public Radio have been getting big play among racing fans and the general public. This column is not going to solve the problems of medications, illegal or legal, in our sport, but it will discuss the bigger problem, which is really one of perception.

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In the NPR report on All Things Considered, Robert Siegel commented on Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom winning in Dubai, highlighting a divide in American racing “where many horses are drugged on race day,” he said. While he was technically correct, I am still waiting for a reply to an e-mail I sent him.

Mr. Siegel:
I hope you are having a good day. I know the cherry trees are blossoming in our nation’s capital, and I hope you are taking Loratadine, rather than Benadryl, to combat their allergenic effect, since Benadryl might cause you to become drowsy, hampering your on-air performance. Now that you are in your 60s, I hope you are taking a low dose aspirin to prevent heart attack, and perhaps you are even taking a statin like Lipitor. I know from your broadcasts that you try to stay active, but are you currently taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen at all for joint or muscle pain after a workout? If you are doing any of those things, I could accurately report “Robert Siegel broadcasts All Things Considered while drugged.”  I think you would agree that this would clearly be unfair, just as was your portrayal of horses racing on Lasix, Bute and other legal therapeutic medications as being drugged.

Illegal drugs are a problem in all sports, including horse racing, but your piece was grossly unfair. I hope a more balanced version will be broadcast prior to next week’s Kentucky Derby.
Keith Gisser

There are really three different issues when we talk racing medications, but the three tend to be lumped together by media and animal rights activists, as witnessed by NPR’s faulty reporting.

The first issue is the legal use of certain medications during racing and training. Examples would be Salix/Lasix and Bute. The argument about whether these medications are needed or should be allowed is ongoing and I do not have the time or space to address it here. I do not think there is anything wrong with using these medications, as permitted under racing’s rules, although I do think they tend to be overused.

The second issue is the illegal use of legal medications. These violations generally occur in two ways: using too much of the medication or using it too close to race time, especially in a horse recovering from illness or injury. Sometimes these violations are intentional, but more often they are simply a result of procedural error.  There are different rules in different states and one thing that tends to get ignored is that horses have differing metabolic rates. We have seen this with some horses who consistently “blow-up” the black box, even when in a detention situation. While the standards claim to make allowances for these differences, they don’t do as good a job as they might.

While we clearly need standardized dosages and withdrawal times for all medications, and there have been some slow, stumbling steps toward that end, the fact is that these days trainers need to be amateur attorneys, knowing thousands of pages of drug regulations if they race in multiple jurisdictions.

The third issue is the use of illegal drugs. While we need to do a better job of policing these, whether by spending more on testing (a cost that should be shared by tracks, horsemen and racing commissions) or by changing our testing methods – more random checks or more consistent testing of all top finishers, for example - trainers who use these illegal drugs must be handed long suspensions.

Brief column aside: I have always been against owner or horse suspensions for medication violations. I felt too many owners are not hands-on enough to control their trainers. A parallel would be the stockbroker who enriches a client’s retirement account through insider trading. The client has no knowledge of the illegal activity. But my position has evolved. I am now in favor of a two-strike policy. As an owner, if your horse tests positive for an illegal drug (not illegal usage of a legal medication), you get one free pass. You can stay with the current trainer and sit out his days; go with his replacement trainer; or move to another barn. On the second violation, you and the horse should get days, regardless of the trainer’s previous record. This gives a horse owner a legitimate chance to say “I didn’t know,” and to correct the problem by moving the horse to a legitimate trainer who is not drugging horses.

Most importantly, we in the media as well as racetrack publicists need to do a better job of explaining these differences to the public. And we must be more open about it. If we can do that, we can make a great deal of progress toward reversing the negative connotation of medication, and perhaps move on to the bigger picture, which is fixing the problem.

Despite these perceived controversies, I will still make the effort to watch the majestic three-year-old Thorougbreds compete in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby as I return home from Kutztown University, stopping en route. And while most of the 20 three-year-old Thoroughbreds racing in this storied race will indeed be medicated, I do not believe any of them will be drugged. Now go cash.

(In the interest of full disclosure to my readers and Mr. Siegel, I was drugged when I wrote this, having ingested a cocktail of Loratadine, Atorvastatin, Aspirin and Losartan, with a side of Ibuoprofen.)