Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The RCI is Right

--Sue Finley

In my freshman English class at NYU, we were given an assignment to write a paper in which we had to take a position on something, and defend it.

Being a racing fanatic, I naturally chose to write a piece on why race-day medications should be banned for Thoroughbreds in North America. (Even at 18, I was a bunny hugger.)

Thirty years later (good God, I’m old) it’s nice to see that the Association of Racing Commissioners International agree with me. Last week, the RCI leaders called for a five-year phase out of of race-day medication, “to take the moral high ground and implement drug rules that mirror the racing in Australia, Dubai, Europe, Hong Kong and even Russia,” said new chairman William Koester.

My fellow students found the
use of race-day medications
 I was never sure why we wanted to cede the moral high ground in the first place. My first job was at NYRA, the last bastion of `hay, oats and water,’ and I was proud to show newbies around and tell them how loved and well-cared for the horses were, and how maybe in other states they were allowed to race on drugs, but they weren’t here.

Back in school, we had to read our position papers aloud in class, and I’ll never forget the expressions on the faces of the other students (none of them had had any exposure to racing) as I described the rising rate of not only breakdowns, but states which allowed medications to be given to racehorses in order to enable them to race through minor aches and pains, pulmonary bleeding, etc. Maybe I was leading the witnesses a little, but I’m going to bet you that it’s not a tough leap for the general public to go from injecting a horse with drugs on raceday to watching a horse break down in a race–whether that’s fair or not. In short, they were disgusted.

My argument then was the same as it is now: whether you think that it’s beneficial or harmful to horses, helpful/harmful to owner economics, increases/decreases field size, or any of the other arguments set forth to justify the use of medication in the racehorse, it is, if nothing else, terrible PR for our industry.

It was, therefore, refreshing to hear Koester, say, “Today over 99% of Thoroughbred racehorses and 70% of Standardbred racehorses have a needle stuck in them 4 hours before a race. That just does not pass the smell test with the public or anyone else except horse trainers who think it necessary to win a race. I'm sure the decision makers at the time meant well when these drugs were permitted, however this decision has forced our jurisdictions to juggle threshold levels as horsemen become more desperate to win races and has given horse racing a black eye.”

Koester is right. As a nation, we grow more compassionate to animals all the time. Smart businesses turn this sentiment to their advantage every day. Five years ago, I had to go to a health food store to find cage-free eggs. My local Acme now has five choices of free-range eggs, along with free-range organic-fed chicken breasts (and the Acme is about as far from a high-end market as it comes.)

300 stores and counting...
 To find a wider range of humanely raised meats (not that I’d eat them, but the family does), I drive a few miles to Whole Foods Market, which now operates more than 300 stores in North America and the UK. Partnering with the Global Animal Partnership, a non-profit dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals raised for their meat, Whole Foods’ stated mission is to offer “organic meats, raised humanely and processed with compassion.” Fifteen years ago, people would have laughed at that statement. Now, they’ll pay double for that meat because it makes them feel better about eating it.

Is it working? In the worst economy since the Great Depression, Whole Foods is projecting an earnings increase of 22.4% this year.

Let’s all side with the RCI on this one. Let’s take the moral high ground back, and let the public feel good about horse racing again.

Maybe our own 22.4% increase in sales will be just around the next corner.


Dana Judge said...

What a brilliant insight, well articulated! Thanks for sharing, Sue, you couldn't be more right.

Sandy MacLeod said...

Very well said Sue, and I couldn't agree more. All the old-time trainers that we came up around never used anything, and never needed to. Ever notice how you'd never see a vet around their barns unless there was some kind of emergency? A whole lot of modern trainers can't train at all without the vet, and to me it's no coincidence that it corresponds roughly with more permissive medication rules. I left the track in 2005, and when I go back I find the lack of horsemanship appalling at times. It doesn't bode well for the future of the sport that we hold so dear.

My only question is why the five year time frame? Five minutes would be better!

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece. We need to step back and see the forest through the trees. This is entertainment and it ceases to be enjoyable when the horses are compromised.

darlene said...

I too am wondering how they propose a 5 year phase out unless they start now and no 2yr old in training or starting this yr is drug free and the older horses running with it are allowed until retirment or the end of 5 yrs whichever comes first I have been around long enough to remember the old days and all the controversy and I too remember New York being the last track standing I also remember healthier horses and tougher horses Over the 5 yrs breeding selection will need some changes and sales of 2 yr olds based on a drugged fastest furlong run will need changing too

Anonymous said...

Worry about weather or not therapeutic medication helps the horses not about how good knocking it makes you feel about yourself.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree Sue! The playing field in modern racing is not level, and I am not referring to illegal medication. There is a plethora of legal therapeutic medications that enable those with the monetary means to have a distinct advantage. Owner's are just as culpable in this matter as trainers. As long as a trainer maintains a 20% win ratio, they are permitted to do what is necessary to "help" the horse achieve their full potential. The end justifies the means after all?