KAREN MARTIN: Diminishing returns on doping horses

Karen Martin

A horse had to be euthanized at Oaklawn last Sunday.

Four-year-old Spirogyra, an entry in the fourth race that day, had suffered catastrophic injuries, according to the Daily Racing Form.

It happened on a beautiful springlike afternoon at the famed Hot Springs racing and gaming facility, where a manageable number of visitors—couples on dates, parents with excited little kids running around, many still wearing their Sunday-best (velveteen dresses and hair bows), and grizzled railbirds patiently working their way, stubby pencil in hand, through a low-key program of claiming races (in which the horses are all for sale for more or less the same price) and maiden races (in which the competitors have yet to win a race).

Most of the day’s races were six furlongs (a furlong is 1/8 mile), with the starting gate at the distant side of the track from the grandstand. Nothing spectacular going on; it was simply a pleasant day to be outside, enjoying the sight of these beautiful animals circling a fast track in the afternoon sun.

It was not apparent to hardly anyone in the stands at the end of the fourth race that Spirogyra had been hurt. They were likely too busy drinking beer ($6 for 20-ounce Michelob Ultra draft), eating corned-beef sandwiches (corned beef and rye bread; simple and satisfying, $7), and comparing notes on who to bet on in the next race.

Spirogyra’s euthanizing follows the recent racing deaths of two 2-year-old horses at the quarter horse meet that opened Jan. 2 in Bossier City, La., at Harrah’s Louisiana Downs and others at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds Race Course.

According to the Shreveport Tmes, horse deaths have become more common at tracks in recent years. The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database reports that 10 horses a week on average died at American racetracks in 2018. Thirty-seven horses died at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif., in 2019. That track already has its first death of 2020.

This needs to change.

Last month, Congress held a hearing on HR 1754, the Horseracing Integrity Act, that would end doping and help stop the alarming incidence of deaths afflicting American horse racing.

HR 1754, led by U.S. Reps. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), Andy Barr (R-Ky.), and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.)—which has 226 House co-sponsors and 25 Senate co-sponsors—would advance an effort to protect American race horses through the establishment of a national, uniform standard for drugs and medication in horse racing.

It would also grant drug rulemaking, testing, and enforcement oversight to a private nonprofit self-regulatory independent organization overseen by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which administers the Olympic anti-doping program, at no cost to taxpayers.

Here’s what Marty Irby, a lifelong horseman and executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Animal Wellness Action—an animal protection group advocating for the bill—has to say about the situation:

“It’s become quite clear that American horseracing is addicted to drugs, and it’s time for an intervention. Our modern-day society will no longer tolerate the deaths of these iconic American equines for a two-dollar bet; this isn’t Ancient Rome, it’s 2020.

“It’s unfortunate that the entire Arkansas Congressional Delegation has failed to support the Horseracing Integrity Act, and effort for reform. If the Horseracing Integrity Act fails to soon pass, then horse racing in Arkansas could very well end up just like greyhound racing.”

The Arkansas congressional delegation, he continues, “should step up and support the Horseracing Integrity Act to stop this abuse and these senseless deaths.”

In recent years, Americans have become increasingly sensitive to the welfare of animals that entertain us. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is just the largest of the traveling circuses that have ceased to employ animals. In 2019, Southland Gaming announced it would end greyhound racing in West Memphis by the end of 2022.

I’ve loved horses since I was a little girl begging my parents to take me to any and all carnivals with shaggy ponies plodding in a circle. Then, when I was in elementary school, I moved up to riding lessons at a day camp in Strongsville, Ohio (Camp Robin, which charged $30 per kid for 10 Saturday afternoons of one-hour riding lessons, an hour of swimming in a murky little lake, and an hour of crafts, mostly gluing macaroni in goofy designs on little sheets of cardboard; it disappeared long ago, replaced by an interstate).

By extension, I became a fan of horse racing, occasionally visiting Cleveland’s thoroughbred track Thistledown and harness racing venue Northfield Park. When I moved to Arkansas, my new friends here told me all about Oaklawn, and I still recall my first visit there when people dressed up and we didn’t dare head from Little Rock to Hot Springs at noon on a Saturday because the traffic was so heavy. Betting has never interested me; I simply liked to watch the horses. Still do.

Sure, drugs were used to improve equine performances in those decades-ago days. But horses weren’t dying at the rate they are now.

I’m not in favor of banning horse racing. But just as we police human athletes in order to keep them from trying to gain advantages over competitors by using drugs, it would seem like HR 1754 would help reduce the far too common use of stimulants and painkillers with no consideration of the effect of such drugs and medications on the animals forced to use them.

At least human athletes have a choice.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.