The historic Saratoga Race Meeting opens this year on Friday, July 24, and runs for six weeks in upstate New York's Saratoga Springs. This year celebrates the 152nd anniversary for this bucolic track, where great thoroughbreds such as Secretariat, Affirmed and Man O'War once raced.
But behind the pageantry, the hats and the party atmosphere is a darker story.
Thoroughbreds are routinely drugged to increase their chance of winning large purses up to a $1.5 million for the Travers Stakes, a race at Saratoga for three-year-olds, which hopes to attract the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, American Pharoah.
This year, just about every horse running in the Triple Crown -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes -- was treated with Lasix, a drug that is widely recognized as a performance enhancer.
Lasix helps to prevent horses from bleeding during a race. When a horse is treated with Lasix, they are not permitted to drink in the four hours from treatment to the race. The result in water loss through the passing of urine makes the animals lighter, which gives it an advantage on the track. However, the bigger problem with Lasix is that it can mask the use of other drugs that are prohibited.
We don't allow doping in any other sport, and baseball players, cyclists and Olympic athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs are stripped of their titles or banned from competition. And no other horse tracks in the world allow the drugs that we permit in the United States.
So why is it allowed in horse racing? The answer is simple -- money. Due to partnerships with casinos, purses have increased significantly. Even a fourth-place finish in some races will earn the owner and trainer a significant payoff.
The other factor is that there is no single independent organization that enforces uniform national anti-doping rules for thoroughbred racing. There are 38 racing jurisdictions in this country, each with its own set of rules. Each track allows different medications, varying levels of permissible drugs, different rules on which horses receive a drug test and a variety of labs to do the testing. An owner and trainer cited for an infraction at one racetrack can simply move to a more permissive venue.
The only way that this situation will change is through legislation. Last week, with the support of a coalition of horse-industry and animal welfare groups including the Humane Society of the United States, Congressmen Andy Barr, R-KY, and Paul Tonko, D-NY, introduced legislation, H.R. 3084, to create a single independent organization to set up and enforce uniform national anti-doping rules for thoroughbred racing.
Thoroughbred racing needs to level the playing field and forbid everyone from race-day doping. The result would be real competition and less risk for horses and jockeys. The independent organization would be composed of members of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, recognized by Congress as the official anti-doping agency for the Olympic, Pan American and Paralympic sports in the United States and include members from the horse racing industry.
Horses are magnificent creatures, but many trainers and owners are allowing unfit, unsound, even injured horses to compete by drugging them to mask the pain. It is up to us to protect them. If the horse racing industry is reluctant to address the issue of performance enhancing drugs, let's make laws that do.