Blog & Tackle: A clean trip in a game of shadows

May 20, 2008 | Chris Pika

Before you get caught up in Big Brown fever, as the 3-year-old heads to the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the Triple Crown, take a moment to look at the sport through a different lens.

Everyone who watched the running of the Preakness at Pimlico, whether at the track or on TV, gave silent thanks when the race finished and there were no on-track mishaps on the scale of Barbaro or Eight Belles. The very sad moments when a horse breaks down on the track and has to be euthanized, especially in front of thousands of fans who watch only the Triple Crown races and maybe the Breeders’ Cup, are the fear of horsemen and track owners. It was a “clean trip” for all concerned.

The sport, which has seen its’ standing among American sports fall after the golden decades from the 1920s through the 1950s, is trying to be relevant again to a generation that mostly goes to the Preakness to party in the infield and won’t set foot on Old Hilltop or any Maryland racetrack during the rest of the year. Their gaming options are many: the lottery, Keno, sports betting, slots in neighboring states, Atlantic City, etc. Spending a day at the track, looking at the Daily Racing Form, handicapping the races is something that seems quaint to do by the “old-timers” seen around the rail.

Racing, by way of simulcast betting options at the track and at internet betting at home and work, has tried to change with the times to capture the dollars needed to give better purse totals and improve the game. The battle for slot machines is well-chronicled and best left to explain by those who have a better understanding of the issues involved in the debate.

The curtain on horse racing has been pulled open in the past few years, and the shadows “behind the curtain” have mostly not been good for the game. From jockeys’ health conditions due to trying to make weight each day and the constant threat of serious injury, to deplorable living conditions for track workers who migrate from plant to plant during the year, the debate on natural vs. synthetic track surfaces and the selective breeding of horses that may have weakened the stock to the point that injuries are more common — the underbelly of racing that everyday players and horsemen know about, but rarely talk about publically, is exposed in today’s 24-hour news cycle.

The latest and most disturbing was the column on Big Brown’s trainer Rick Dutrow, done by Rick Maese of The Sun last week before the Preakness. It gave a peek into the world of horse trainers, who like athletes in team sports, maybe look for an edge where they shouldn’t.

Now, anabolic steroids are legal for horses in several states, including Maryland. National Thoroughbred Racing Association president Alex Waldrop said before Congress earlier this year that a ban on those compounds could be in place by the end of 2008.

“Let me be clear,” Wardrop testified. “Anabolic steroids have therapeutic value in treating racehorses. They are most often prescribed when a horse is recovering from illness or surgery. However, horsemen, tracks and breeders all agree that racehorses should not compete on anabolic steroids …”

Maese questioned Dutrow on the effect Winstrol — a steroid — has on the horses under his care, Dutrow gave a response that goes along the lines of Roger Clemens’ “misremembering” and Bill Belichick’s “misinterpretation.”

“You’d have to ask the vet what the purpose of that is,” he said. “I don’t know what it does. I just like using it.” Huh?

Dutrow also gave the same response to NBC’s Bob Costas, who asked him about it prior to the Preakness post parade. (By the way, give Costas credit for asking the question and to both NBC and ESPN for tackling the bigger issues during programs on Preakness Day.)

Again, Winstrol is not a banned substance for horses, but neither were steroids in baseball until a few years ago. The players (including Rafael Palmeiro, who was linked to use of Winstrol) had a choice of what to put in their system by pill or injection and knew what it would do for them. Horses have no such choice — the trainers make the call for the animal.

The use of Bute and Lasix in horses has also been debated. Does Bute halt the horse’s ability to feel pain when racing? Is Lasix more than just a respiratory “bleeder” medication, but a drug used to help horses breathe better and a “masking agent” for other illegal substances? Is it bending or breaking the rules?

Certainly, Dutrow and other trainers know every thing that goes into a horse’s system in preparation to race. Nothing is left to chance, especially for a horse in Big Brown that is now worth over $50 million at stud once his racing days are through.

Dutrow has seen his share of troubles, with fines and suspensions in each of the last eight years for doping-related offenses, including a $500 fine in Florida for illegal amounts of Bute in a horse’s system. According to the Sun’s story, his horses have also tested positive for illegal amounts of a respiratory drug and Lasix. He is not the only trainer with fines and suspensions for those types of activities — just the most famous one right now.

The industry can hope that a Big Brown victory at the Belmont will bring back the glamour lights to a game much in need of a horse to cheer and tickets to cash. And in the glow of the Triple Crown, maybe some much-needed light will be shone into the dark corners of the game and disperse the shadows that follow these great equine athletes.