Mojo News and Notes

June 8, 2008


Level the Playing Field
Editorial by Fred Taylor
Current Events
Level the Playing Field

Get Rid of Steroids and other Performance Enhancing Drugs

By Fred Taylor, Jr.

Horse Health and Industry Integrity Issues

I’m going to say what many in this industry are afraid to admit (but are slowly accepting)—steroids and other performance enhancing medications have absolutely no place on the backside, at the training centers, or in the sales rings.

“Medication made this year’s Triple Crown just horrible.”  That quote was made by Arthur Hancock, III (the proprietor of Stone Farm in Lexington, KY and noted breeder of three Kentucky Derby winners:  Gato Del Sol, Sunday Silence, and Fusaichi Pegasus) in 1990 when he was interviewed by The New York Times about how performance enhancing drugs are hurting horse racing.  That 18-year-old statement, however, could have been made (and would be just as effective) the day after the 2008 Belmont Stakes.

At issue are the effects drugs have on a race horse’s health, and like many other professional sports leagues, the negative image cast over the integrity of the Thoroughbred Industry.  The intent of the medication started out being therapeutic; but like Major League Baseball, track and field, the NFL, and cycling, the popular use today is to get an edge.

The consequences for equine athletes are similar to human sports figures—performance enhancing drugs lead to physical and psychological problems.  The numbers of trainers who give their horses steroids are just as hazy as the number of players who artificially enhance their god-given ability.  And, the Achilles Heal of our sport is the weak regulations and limited policing of drug use.

First Signs of Trouble

The initial indications that steroids were negatively affecting the industry appeared in the breeding shed.  Infertility and violent behavior by both stallions and mares—the same side effects also seen in humans.  “They come off the race track so messed up,” one Maryland breeder said about the mares she received that were trained on steroids.  “You can’t breed them for a year, and some of them never fully recover.  It ruins them.”

History of Steroids

Experiments to enhance performance, particularly by way of altering testosterone, surfaced in the 1890s.  By 1935, the first synthetic steroids were developed.  After World War II, European athletes were using them to out perform their competition.  Multiple versions were developed through the years and secretly distributed through the back market so sports stars could dominate their opponents.  Steroids made their way into equine sports in the late seventies.

There are two types of steroids in use in the racing industry, and the distinction is important to remember.  Dr. Scot Waterman Executive Director of the Racing Medication Testing Consortium clarifies:  “Corticosteroids (prednisone, dexamethasone, etc.) are generally used to relieve inflammation.  They are commonly used to treat inflammation in joints and in the airways of racehorses.  The second type of steroids is anabolic steroids.  They are used primarily by veterinarians to keep horses eating and training aggressively.  They also are used to replace hormones lost in male horses after being castrated.”

Side Effects

Anabolic steroids will promote weight gain, muscular development, increase appetite, and aids in the production of red blood cells.  In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of four types of steroids for horses because of its “rejuvenating effects.”  Bob Lewis, Chairman for the RMTC states, “I have treated horses with steroids and the times they’re beneficial are for injured or debilitated horses.  These are sick horses, or horses that have just come out of surgery.  There’s no way I could see any of these horses entered in races for several months.”

Put in regular use, steroids can cause hypertension; lead to irreversible heart and/or liver damage; create too much mass; degrade soft tissue, tendons, and ligaments; and increase aggressive tendencies.  Other medications such as bronchodilators act as stimulants and allow horses to exercise faster.  The negative effects essentially disrupt the delicate balance of a horse’s body.  An unnatural overload occurs because certain parts of the body will “bulk up,” while others are weakened, and that leads to frequent breakdowns.  RMTC Secretary Rich Arthur says, “Horses are able to train harder, but that is likely leading to more injuries, including catastrophic breakdowns.”

Cheating is also an obvious “black eye” for the industry.  According to a 1994 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, “Steroid use perverts the goals of sports and athletic competition.  A victory achieved through steroid use is hollow, at best.  At worst, the athlete may face prosecution or even death.”  Of course, a race horse has no choice in the matter; however, trainers and owners who support steroid use should be held accountable for inappropriate use of steroids.

Industry Problems

In 28 of 38 racing jurisdictions, some form of steroids is allowed for racing.  And, it’s permitted for “therapeutic” purposes in the other ten states.  To date, five states have passed laws that ban steroids in racing.  Because pari-mutuel wagering is regulated by state law, in order to have a uniform policy, all 38 states have to agree to the same things—this, as you might imagine, is not an easy task and is what creates the biggest obstacle to achieving medication standards, rules, and law.

Various studies and reports by testing agencies indicate that 70% of the horses tested had some form of steroid in their system, and in many cases, there were multiple types of steroids detected.  The problem is:  Regulation of what types and quantity of steroids (and other medications) is contingent upon each state’s racing commission.  Despite these studies and recent hearings on the topic, in the three states which proudly host the prestigious jewels of the Triple Crown (Kentucky, Maryland, and New York), four anabolic steroids (Winstrol, Equipose, Nadrolone, and testosterone) are permitted.

There is no national oversight body, nor are there any uniform standards.  Rules and regulations are state-based.  Though momentum is developing to form and adopt common standards, independent groups within the industry are fighting back out of concern for special interests.  “We are for the regulation of anabolic steroids, but not the banning of them,” said National Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association Chairman Kent Stirling.  Mr. Stirling’s concerns echo other industry insiders who are hiding behind the therapeutic benefit because they are worried about withdrawal times (the time it takes a drug to clear a horse’s body) and penalties for positive results, as well as potential testing inconsistencies.

In February 2008, a congressional hearing was held to discuss the use of steroids and how it undermines the integrity of sport.  During the hearing, U.S. Representative Ed Whitfield of Kentucky stated: “Trainers and vets make the decision, and the horse cannot say no.  England, France, all of Europe, Japan, South Africa, Dubai, Australia—all of the major racing jurisdictions have banned the use of drugs still commonplace in America.  England, for instance, banned steroids in racing over 30 years ago.”

The public acknowledgment by Big Brown’s trainer about his regular administration of Winstrol is proof positive of a needed change.  “That type of use is what moved us to begin the process (of tightening rules on the steroid),” said RMTC Executive Director Scot Waterman.  “There was evidence these products were being overused or abused.”

The use of steroids to develop mass (particularly in Two-Year-Olds In Training and Yearlings being prepped for auction) is particularly illusive.  Consignors and trainers have honed their skills to a point where they can dance around withdrawal times in order to use steroids to make their horses look bigger.  The result is that two-year-olds perform like three-year-olds and literally race themselves into the ground.  Likewise, juiced horses enter the sale ring looking a year older because their bodies are physically bigger (though still structurally immature).

Proposed Solutions

Hall of Fame Trainer Jack Van Berg (who trained the great Alysheba and is an adamantly outspoken opponent of steroids) says, “You couldn’t get ten percent of horses racing (in the U.S.) to pass a drug test in Hong Kong or Japan.  We’re a laughing stock.  I think we should be racing with absolutely no medication whatsoever.  Zero.  Stop it all.  If the horse ain’t right, turn him out instead of running (him) until he breaks his leg off.”

“We must remove drugs and thugs from our game,”  Mr. Hancock, III said.  “I think the federal government needs to create some sort of new body to run this sport and keep it above board.”  And, as Mr. Hancock, III points out, the use of federal regulation (by way of The Horse Racing Act of 1978) might be the angle to do it.  States must abide by the federal regulations or they will lose their rights to broadcast their tracks’ signals.  (In a future article, I will discuss the importance of the simulcast signal and the war being waged over the lucrative rights to broadcast it via TV and Internet.)

Many who oppose federal legislation fear it because they think it’ll be heavy-handed and burdensome to the sport.  A national committee, like the commissioner of other professional sports such as baseball, football, and basketball, may be more appropriate.  And if not federal oversight or a national committee, then uniform model rules need to be adopted by all racing jurisdictions.

None of Bob Baffert’s three Kentucky Derby winners (Silver Charm, Real Quiet, or War Emblem) were treated with steroids because as he says, “they were healthy, robust horses that did not need them.”  Baffert said, “There’ll always be somebody out there with something they think they can give these horses and not get caught.” 

Van Berg believes funding for better drug testing and stiff penalties is the way to solve the problem.  “You’ve got to have sophisticated, high-tech testing.  That’s where you make them (cheating trainers) honest,” Van Berg said.  “If you caught them and sent them down the road for a year, you would see a lot of difference then.”

John Ward, another noted “old-school” horseman and trainer of 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos agrees with Van Berg and believes new model rules will restore the sport’s integrity.  “The new steroid rules, I think, will really help if we get it right.”

Industry Leaders

While Kentucky, Maryland, and New York retreat from the pressure being imposed by special interests and toil in their own bureaucratic indecision; there are others leading the way.  Five states should be applauded because they have banned steroids from racing:  Iowa, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and California.

Forging ahead on the medication front and setting the standard to police performance enhancing drugs is the Racing Medication Testing Consortium (RMTC).  The mission of the RMTC is, “…to develop, promote and coordinate, at the national level, policies, research, and educational programs which seek to ensure the fairness and integrity of racing and the health and welfare of racehorses and participants, and protect the interests of the betting public.”

In 2000, at The Jockey Club Roundtable meeting, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Task Force on Racing Integrity and Drug Testing released a report that highlighted the drug and testing problems with the Industry.  A medication summit followed, and from that, the RMTC was formed.  The RMTC is governed by a board of directors consisting of 23 racing industry stakeholder groups.  The Officers are primarily DVMs.

The RMTC develops model rules for the industry, catalogs and publishes withdrawal times for medications, and conducts targeted research for the detection of prohibited substances.  The RMTC also works with tracks to ensure backside security of samples being selected for testing.  The work the RMTC is doing stretches beyond racing to support sales integrity and steeplechase sports.

The RMTC receives its funding primarily from grants.  It is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit corporation that also accepts tax deductible contributions from individuals, horseman’s groups, and other financial supporters.


Because I believe steroids should be banned from racing, training, and sales, I support a federal law that would ban steroids and other performance enhancing medications from racing.  From this, a national oversight committee can be created to ensure all racing jurisdictions are in compliance with federal law.  In the meantime, the work of the RMTC is vital to the promoting the health and welfare of all race horses, and I urge racing jurisdictions to continue to adopt the RMTC’s model rules.

I further believe breeding and racing operations should be subject to random testing to catch trainers and breeders who are playing the withdrawal game.  Owners should be just as knowledgeable of the rules; what medications are being administered; and held accountable for participating in or allowing unscrupulous practices.  In this regard, penalties for violations should result in the dismantling of the barn, and the owners/trainers being banned from the sport for at least a year.


Racing Medication and Testing Consortium

The Blood-Horse, Inc.

The Courier-Journal

The Lexington Herald-Leader

Thoroughbred Daily News

The New York Times

Thoroughbred Times

HighBeam Reasearch, Inc.