Jockeys just aren't smart," snaps a prominent trainer at Baltimore's Pimlico racetrack. "Don't pay any attention to them. The proof is when you call the White House, no guy 4'8" tall answers the phone." While this derisive observation is obviously illogical, incongruous and indefensible, it is accurate evidence of how edgy the people in racing are these days as they confront what has become the sport's most explosive issue—Bute.
Butazolidin is the brand name for the drug phenylbutazone, a medication that can reduce swelling and inflammation, which in turn eases pain. It's the most widely used drug in the horse racing industry, yet, on the heels of a series of recent accidents, its very mention generates emotional sparks. And jockeys—including Rudy Turcotte, who broke his collarbone in a horrendous four-horse spill at Pimlico earlier this month that killed one rider. Robert Pineda—are questioning its use. Jorge Velasquez, one of the nation's top jockeys, says, "In my opinion, these places that use Bute are really not in control of it." And Steve Cauthen says, "The thing I don't like about Bute is the horse tries to overextend himself. The horse is better when he knows how he feels."
Indeed, a big knock on Bute—albeit a much refuted one—is that it does make a horse feel better than it really is, thus making it possible for the animal to put too much pressure on a bad ankle or knee. The newest question raised about Bute is whether the drug adversely affects healing of an injury, and whether bone density is subsequently weakened. This question arises because of a feeling that serious breakdowns are increasing, that instead of horses coming back lame after a race, too many are snapping their legs and going down during it. Studies are under way. If the theory proves correct, Bute is in big trouble. In 19 of 22 states where there is major thoroughbred racing, Bute is legal. Only New York, New Jersey and Arkansas prohibit horses from racing on it. At this Saturday's Preakness in Baltimore, some of the horses likely will be on Bute.
But the jocks have plenty of opposition. Gene Bierhaus, chief vet of the Colorado Racing Commission says, "I really hate to see jockeys evaluate scientific questions." Maryland veterinarian Jim Stewart suggests, "When people are killed in cars, it's not because of the gasoline." And Chick Lang, Pimlico's general manager, says, "About the only way a jockey can get killed by Butazolidin is for a box of it to fall on his head. But if I'm wrong and it's being abused, then let's find out and do something about it."
May 21, 1978
In the wake of Pineda's death, and as a result of injuries suffered by jockeys in several other falls this year, plenty of people besides the riders are condemning—or defending—the drug. One of them is James P. Mills, owner of the fine 3-year-old Believe It. He is anti-Bute and thinks that pressure from the jockeys is the "best hope" for doing away with it.
Whatever people say, Bute is not a painkiller like Demerol, morphine and novocain. "If you think it is," says Pennsylvania veterinarian Kenneth P. Seeber, "next time you go to the dentist and he's going to drill, tell him to give you Bute instead of novocain." Still, Bute is the code word for those who want to attack the use of drugs in racing. Ever since Dancer's Image won the Kentucky Derby in 1968, then was disqualifed because Bute was found in his system, use of the drug has stirred highly publicized controversy.
Three recent accidents have intensified the controversy. At Hollywood Park last month, jockeys Angel Cordero Jr. and Raul Ramirez were hurt when Cordero's mount, Firdabee, went down. In California, information about the use of Bute is not available to the public. Yet, reluctance to talk (Firdabee's trainer, Tommy Doyle, says, "It's nobody's business") indicates Firdabee may, indeed, have been on the drug. Then, in February at Bowie, Md., rider John Adams was crushed when his horse, Po Sho, broke her leg and went down. Adams was unconscious for 21 days, and semiconscious 14 more. "Bute makes 'em try too hard," says Adams, who is recuperating at his Bowie home. "They had to use Bute to get Po Sho to the track. She couldn't have raced without it." Trainer David Sipe says that's not true, although he admits Po Sho was running with a bone chip in her ankle.
Then on May 3, Pineda was killed. The accident started when Turcotte's horse, Easy Edith, was going for the lead. She snapped a leg, and Pineda's horse, right behind, flipped over her and fell. Later, Turcotte submitted to a hospital room interview in which he was quoted as blaming Bute for causing the breakdown. He also equated Bute with novocain. Now Turcotte is backing off, declining to say that Bute put Easy Edith down (she had inflamed knees, says her trainer, Tom Caviness, but nothing serious). "I just don't know," Turcotte says, "but in a lot of these spills, Bute has a lot to do with it." Turcotte also says he regrets his reference to novocain, which he admits was incorrect and a poor example. Says Turcotte, "I was under a painkiller myself. I was just trying to explain what Bute was to this reporter who didn't know anything." Turcotte, pain clearly etched in his face, dropped by Adams' house the other evening, and admitted that all the events—the race, the accident, the death, the interview—came too fast. "It's like somebody points a gun at you," he said. "You don't have time to think what you're gonna do after the bullet has gone through your head."
Racing people, especially those who are pro Bute, feel a bullet has gone through their heads, shot from the mouths of Adams and Turcotte. Trainers in particular think that jockeys should be seen riding and not heard talking. One of Pimlico's leading trainers, Buddy Delp, says, "These jocks are way off base. They don't know enough about Bute to know what they're talking about." In fact, last week two members of Pimlico's management privately discredited Turcotte and Adams.
Last year the National Association of Racing Commissioners asked a committee of chemists and vets to look at Bute and to investigate causes of breakdowns. The panel came up with many reasons (excessive racing, poor tracks, poor conformation, bad training) but concluded, "Controlled medication per se is not considered to be a significant factor." Colorado, the first state to legalize Bute, has not experienced an increase in breakdowns. Neither has California.
Current figures compiled by the Pennsylvania branch of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association compare breakdowns in Pennsylvania, a Bute state, with non-Bute New York for 1977. Keystone had 5.0 breakdowns per thousand horses, Penn National 3.7 per thousand; New York 5.6 per thousand at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga. And in the first several months of this year, Keystone had 5.5 per thousand, Penn National only 2.6 and Aqueduct 6.2. "Bute doesn't cause horses to break down," says New Jersey vet Allan Wise. "Tracks do."
A horse that is arthritic or otherwise sore can be given two pills (10¬¨¬®¬¨¢ each) or shots ($6 to $8), and the swelling generally eases. When the swelling eases, so does the pain, which enables the horse to run more naturally, compensating less for an aching leg. Veterinarian G. Frederick Fregin, assistant professor at the New Bolton Center near Philadelphia, who is involved in a study of Bute, asks, "Does a horse injure himself when he feels pain or when he doesn't? A horse that is sore wants to protect himself. If soreness throws off his gait, alters his stride, there's a chance of trouble."
If a horse has been dosed with Bute, he no longer exhibits soreness and he feels better, therefore he races closer to his form. Ergo, the bettor should not limp home so badly. Nor should the horse. The main problems arise with cheaper horses, the claimers, who race in Bute states that inform the public which horse is on the drug. In those states, if a horse is raced without Bute, it is an advertisement that the animal is sound—a real jewel among a bevy of bad legs. So he most likely will be claimed immediately. This means that many horses that don't need Bute are raced on it to cover up their true condition.
But with Bute easing routine soreness, the horses can race more often. State legislatures repeatedly add racing days (in 1960 there were 6,099 racing dates in this country; last year there were 13,293) because they want more tax revenue. New York gets $134.6 million, California $109.1 million, Illinois $72.5 million, Pennsylvania $23.7 million and Maryland $19.3 million annually from the sport. Racing is especially hectic in the East, and pressures on the horsemen are strong. The trainer is buffeted on one side by owners who want action for their $600 to $1,000 a month per horse training expenses and by racing secretaries who desperately need horses to fill races. At the same time the trainer must contend with the moral problem of racing a horse which often has aches and pains and needs rest far more than an inside post position. And finally there are the jockeys who increasingly are saying they don't like to ride Bute horses but are afraid to turn down the mounts for fear they won't get more.
Few trainers will admit that they have to have Bute in order to get their horses to the starting gate. The other guys do, of course, but not them. Bute can cover up a multitude of training sins. Still, even ill-advised overdoses of Bute don't seem to hurt a horse or improve performance. The drug is not a stimulant, which means it doesn't miraculously make horses run faster than normal. And it's not a depressant, although many vets and others concede privately they think it has a dulling effect if administered on race day. Side effects are rare. It does, however, cloud testing procedures for other drugs.
A minority view is held by Dr. Wise. He thinks Bute is so potent that it will "completely mask a fracture." Counters Dr. Seeber, "Impossible." But to avoid such abuse, Wise says states need only adopt rules limiting its use to 24 hours before the race or, even better, up to 48 hours. Then, says Wise, the horse will get the benefit of Bute as it relates to soreness but the drug will not mask the pain of a fracture or other serious condition that would otherwise be detected. Some states have such rules. Others, like Maryland and Pennsylvania, don't.
Supporters of Bute note that procedures used in lieu of it are far worse. Liniment once was a common treatment for ailing legs, but these concoctions routinely blistered the horse's thin skin. A more common procedure is to drain fluid from a horse's joint, then inject the joint with cortisone—which some say shortens a horse's racing career. But, for the moment, it does keep him racing. And then there is the most brutal procedure, cutting a horse's nerves to eliminate pain. John Veitch, Alydar's trainer, says there are worse practices than using Bute, among them the common technique of standing a horse in ice (Veitch says that makes bones brittle) and racing in winter on frozen tracks. "If Bute can overcome an ailment," says Dr. Seeber, "it's not a very serious ailment." Another routine defense of Bute is that horses not on it break bones anyway and go down.
The naysayers are highly vocal. Mrs. Richard C. duPont, Kelso's breeder, thinks there is "absolutely no question" that Bute leads to breakdowns. "If a horse is sore, you give him a little time," she says. "You don't give him Bute." (Time is a luxury many owners and trainers can't afford.) Carl Hanford, who used to train Kelso and who is now a Keystone steward, thinks too many trainers use Bute as a crutch. Charles Cella, president of Arkansas' Oaklawn track, says, "When we use Bute on horses, we aren't letting nature take its free course. We end up with a winner by virtue of chemistry, not breeding." William G. Barry, chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, says, "Horses should race in proper physical condition without the use of drugs to alter their performance in any way." Still, horses are permitted to train on Bute in New York, and everywhere else, which to serious bettors is not fair, for workout times are important to handicapping.
Moreover, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals predictably is at Bute's throat. In Pennsylvania a bill has been introduced to abolish the drug and a long list of other medications. Jo Irwin, president of the Bucks County SPCA, says, "I'm against any pre-race medication that could mask pain and thus remove a horse's natural, God-given sense of pain." And she snorts at horsemen who say conditions require that their valuable horses be given Bute to enable them to perform up to their capabilities. "This means they have lame horses that can't race without drugs," she says. Many anti-Bute people say horses should be given hay, oats and water—and nothing else. That, in the current racing climate, is a pipe dream.
Ironically, in the main the problem is that, while horses may be bred to race, they aren't built for it. Their hooves have to withstand a ton of pressure per square inch while racing. This has caused Dr. Joseph C. O'Dea, writing in the Thoroughbred Record, to wonder whether "we are creating a racing machine which has too big a 'motor,' too big an energy output to be handled by the 'undercarriage.' " Beyond this, horses get bumped, step in holes, or on another horse's heels and jockeys are thrown off balance. It's no playground out there, Bute or no.
At Pimlico the other afternoon veterinarian Kenneth Fox said, "Bute does not put a horse in a euphoric state. It's like a temporary patch on a tire. The real problem is that racing has a detrimental effect on horses. The proof is that you seldom see them break down in a pasture." Meanwhile, back home in Bowie, Rudy Turcotte is still hurting badly. He is not convinced about Bute's value and submits there are two things that are certain in this life: "There will always be enough horses to race and enough people to bet."