The neglected horse

Part III of a series on racing problems reveals the appalling lack of Interest in animal care
April 03, 1961

"The American race horse has an arduous life. He is expected to run nearly 12 months a year, to retain his normal form while being shipped all over the continent by van, train and plane and while performing on all kinds of track surfaces and under all weather conditions. Only an iron horse can meet these obligations, and there are precious few of them around in any season.

For the rest the answer is a never-ending series of treatments by veterinarians, some of whom have no idea what they are doing to a horse beyond "doctoring him up" for a particular race. U.S. horsemen have a huge financial stake in the sport itself but have paid comparatively little attention to the creature that makes it all possible.

One Kentucky horseman says, "It is inconceivable to me that the smart businessman will pay staggering prices for a horse and do so little to improve his condition, welfare and usefulness." A veterinarian in New Jersey describes the result of this neglect: "If we scratched all the sore horses going to the post there would be no racing at all. Easily 75% of all horses running today have something wrong with them. The other 25% are perfectly sound but have one drawback as racers—they can't run fast."

The patching up of ailing horses is as old as racing. Most of the methods, such as icing and the use of poultices, liniments—and more lately an assortment of vitamins—are as legal as giving an animal his daily ration of hay, oats and water. The complications that cause much of today's controversy arise because of the widespread use of drugs and the fact that in many states they are not clearly identified as stimulants, depressants, or neither.

A few years ago racing authorities were concerned with only half a dozen drugs: morphine, heroin, cocaine, strychnine, caffeine and codeine. Today there are more than 350, some of which cannot be detected by the routine saliva and urine tests. The most controversial of the new drugs is Butazolidin (SI, August 1). It is one of many medicines originally developed for use by human beings and now applied to horses. Vets who have used it say that Butazolidin alleviates aches and pains of an arthritic nature and permits a horse to run to his normal capacity but does not stimulate him. Dr. Jordan Woodcock, former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, supports this view. He points out that there was no noticeable difference in the percentage of winning favorites among those horses using—or not using—Butazolidin at Chicago tracks, where the drug was allowed last year. "The fact that 130 horses came off the Butazolidin list and kept their form proves that the drug did some good in certain individual cases. Other trainers soon found out that Butazolidin doesn't always help every horse and they stopped using it."

Arguments against use

Butazolidin now can be administered legally to horses scheduled to race in three states, Illinois, Kentucky and Florida. Elsewhere, authorities oppose it largely on the ground that, as a temporary reliever of soreness and unsoundness, Butazolidin must have some effect on a horse's running condition. In other words they believe that using or withdrawing it could result in a horse running "hot or cold." This is the same effect, although to a lesser degree, obtained by any of the already-prohibited narcotics.

The principle involved here is prevention of unfair competition, but it is not easy to get an official, uniform policy on medication. The National Association of State Racing Commissioners can suggest uniform rules, but only the individual state commissions have the authority to implement them. There are many competing factions. More and more horsemen are in favor of a permissive list of drugs, including Butazolidin, in order to get every last bit of run out of their horses. Vets for the most part are in favor because it brings them more business. Track managements in some areas use political pressure on state commissions to permit Butazolidin, pointing out that this would guarantee large fields, would lead to bigger pari-mutuel handles and bigger tax take-out for state treasuries.

Keene Daingerfield, former president of the Society of North American Racing Officials, takes another view. "There appears to be an irreconcilable difference between the laudable sentiment that 'a horse which needs medication shouldn't be racing' and the constant expansion of racing. More days of racing, more races per day, the continuing competition for the tax dollar, have placed an intolerable burden on the horses themselves. Hard tracks, overracing of 2-year-olds, failure to breed for soundness, incompetent trainers and exercise riders all contribute to the situation, but basically it is year-round racing which has led to the present deplorable dearth of sound horses."

Aside from the question of drugs, the efforts of veterinarians to improve the care of horses have been severely hampered by a lack of adequate financial backing. The Racing Chemistry Research Fund, not even established until 1958, was set up under a bare minimum budget of $50,000, which was expected to last two years. The Grayson Foundation, founded in 1940 in Lexington, Ky. to support basic research in the equine field, operated on initial grants of $50,000 annually, but this sum has slipped to an average of only $43,000 for the last three years.

Before World War II most research in this field was conducted by the U.S. Army Remount Service. Now it is largely in the hands of the Grayson Foundation, headed by onetime Greentree Stud manager Clarkson Beard. Grayson plans to work chiefly in four general areas: the unsoundness of joint, tendon and bone; nutrition; diseases of virus abortion, influenza and parasites; and breeding problems. Other research is being conducted through special grants at a number of colleges and universities. Unfortunately, not half enough is being done.

We believe it is high time the whole racing industry and the state commissions got behind a program of research in this field. Furthermore, we repeat that the sensible course to follow on Butazolidin is to ban it everywhere until the present study (under Dr. John E. Martin at the University of Pennsylvania) is completed and all the facts about its properties are established.

More than $85 million will be given away in purses at U.S. tracks this year, compared to the $43,000 that will go into research at Grayson. This is a ridiculous imbalance. If racing doesn't begin to show more regard for the horse, it will forfeit all right to be called a sport instead of a gambling wheel.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)