Reader Nicole sent a correction to yesterday’s post about the trainer of the Kentucky Derby winner. Apparently milkshakes don’t cause breakdowns, they’re just plain old cheating:
Hey, mistermix- as a horse racing fan, I have to point out that your post on Doug O’Neill is wrong. “Milkshakes” do not cause horses to break down. They neutralize lactic acid so the horse’s muscles don’t get fatigued as fast as they would without it. They aren’t bad for the horse.
Why they are bad is that they are performance-enhancing, which is an unfair advantage over other horses and because it’s thought that they may mask illegal drugs in drug tests, though I don’t think there’s any actual proof that they mask anything.
The fact that O’Neill used them and was (rightly) busted for it has no bearing on his breakdown rate. Milkshakes don’t contribute the risk of breakdown. It was incorrect of you to link them, and while the Times article strongly implies a connection, it doesn’t actually state milkshakes cause breakdowns, because they don’t.
The NY Times has come under heat for this series of racing articles because they are doing a lot of implying and misleading readers in order to make a more sensationalistic story. In particular, their data collection and interpretation on deaths/injuries on tracks required a lot of assumptions on the part of the researchers.
Racing has a lot of problems, not the least of which is that there is no national governing board, and that the racetracks’ interests in races with full fields directly goes against trainers’ interests in giving horses rest time in between races. At the end of the article, O’Neill mentions being pressured by racetracks to run horses he didn’t think were healthy enough, because the track needed to fill a race. This is a genuine problem, and a trainer that refuses on behalf of his horse is a trainer that may find himself refused stall space at the track.
Which is not to defend O’Neill; the people who post on the racing board I like to read are grousing about his victory, because the general feeling is that he is a big fat cheater.
I still think the point is the same: Big Money corrupts everything it touches.
i grew up for a spell near the state fairgrounds in maryland. we would often ride our bikes over to the racetrack and hang around the stables. looking back i am amazed they allowed us to do that, but that’s a different discussion. i learned about stuff that still amazes me to this day. the craziest was sponging, essentially placing porous materials in the sinus cavities of the horse to gently restrict airflow. i remember the trainers telling me that a) cheating was going to happen and b) the horses are far, far better off with something like sponging than something like injections. they actually felt that they were doing a service to the horse by fixing the races in a less-damaging way. so strange.
I’m not very well versed in thoroughbred racing, but the facts about animal abuse in other animal racing, like we see here at the Meadows (harness racing) and Wheeling Downs (greyhounds) leads me to believe that it is probably as rampant there. I know horse and dog rescuers who have rescued many animals from both places and the stories they tell are horrific, just horrific. I find it hard to believe that thoroughbred racing is any different. My cousin, a thoroughbred owner and breeder, says it is no different and perhaps worse, simply because of the more vast amount of money involved. She loves her horses and won’t have anything to do with racing, thoughshe certainly could.
The older I get, the more opposed to using animals of any kind for sport I get. FWIW, I’d ban horse racing if I were King of the World.
‘Course, if I were KotW, a lot of things would change around here.
Villago Delenda Est
Well, if I were KotW, there would be talking head death matches on pay-per-view. “This week, Friedman vs. Hannity. Two asswipes go in, only one comes out!”
@geg6: I don’t know much of anything about harness racing and greyhound racing; I do know the perception of harness racing among thoroughbred racing fans is that it is fixed to a far greater extent than thoroughbred racing is or could be. One of TB racing’s big problems, as I said to mistermix, is the lack of a national governing board, so states can vary what they do and do not allow (yay, States’ Rights! agh). The trainers and owners I’ve met in my years as a fan have never struck me as anything other than great horse lovers and very concerned about the welfare of the animals. Belmont, like many tracks, offers behind-the-scenes tours to the stabling area, which I doubt they’d do if it was a hotbed of cruelty and illegal activity.
There are several very good organizations that work very hard on finding homes and second careers for OTTB (Off-The-Track-Thoroughbreds). Those organizations can and should be supported (and without the NYTimes doing misleading hit pieces on them, as they did this week with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation) Retired TB racehorses become dressage horses, jumpers, lesson horses and police horses. Some prisons run programs for the inmates, teaching them horsemanship skills on retired racers, in the hopes of giving them job opportunities, many of which will come at racetracks.
The “vast” amounts of money, unfortunately, come on the end of the states, which take enormous percentages of the money wagered, and on the commercial breeding end, which, in my opinion, has done a lot to screw up the game and the breed. Most small owners struggle to keep a stable going. It’s said of racing that the best way to make a million dollars racing horses is to start with five million dollars.
I should correct one thing I said about milkshakes- properly administered, they’re not harmful. It is possible to kill a horse doing it wrong (just as most medications and therapies can be dangerous if administered incorrectly, whether to horse or human). Which is yet another reason they’re banned. In the case of Lasix/Salix, which is considered by equine veterinarians to be therapeutic, not performance-enhancing, in New York, the shot of it may only be administered by a track veterinarian, to make sure it’s done properly, safely, and that the correct dosage is administered.
It’s not just the money. It’s for any reward/recognition of any kind. The stuff that some 4H parents do to steers and sheep just so that their 10-year-old can win a class at a local show is just as hair curling.
One little example – injecting air under the skin so the animal looks bigger.
@mb: The thing is, thoroughbreds enjoy racing. That’s what they were put on Earth to do, plain and simple, and you would know it just by watching foals. Nothing grander than Kentucky in the spring when the foals are let out to play. (edit) And, as Nicole says above, there are people completely dedicated to caring for them.
The bad thing is the win-at-all-costs attitude we humans bring to racing (and every other sport, IMO). It’s especially obnoxious because in many cases the asshole with the attitude is sitting comfortably at home, or in the stands, taking absolutely no risk.
Villago Delenda Est
Reminds me of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Mitt Romney, and warbloggers. All very enthusiastic about wars, but if you ask them to put their skin in the game, you get a “no thanks, I have other priorities” in response.
Sure, but it’s not as if thoroughbreds were put here by god. They got that way from centuries of careful breeding for the gameness you describe. If anything, that makes me feel worse about racing these animals, rather than better.
@mb: The problem with objecting to using animals in sports because of instances of cruelty is that you might as well say, well, we shouldn’t own pets, because some people abuse them. The question to ask is whether an activity is inherently cruel in and of itself. Dog fighting, no question; it’s cruel to base a sport on two animals attacking each other.
But it’s not cruel to run horses against each other, or ask them to jump obstacles, or ask dogs to perform obstacle courses or run around in a show ring, or a bull to buck off a rider (they’re trained to do it. Really). The cruelty comes in through, as it does in so many things, attempts to save money at the expense of the animal (or employee, in human industries). But those things can be regulated. Never perfectly, and in the case of racing, some states do better than others (argh), but animal sports aren’t wrong because asking an animal to do something it does well is not cruel.
There’s a reason that horse people refer to giving a horse a signal to trot, or canter, or run, or jump, as “asking” it. Because you are; you’re not telling. You can’t get a 1000 pound animal to do something it doesn’t want to.
This is a link to one of my favorite races- the 1995 Breeders Cup Classic (no horses get injured; I promise). The great Cigar was attempting to close out a perfect season- it was his tenth and final race of the season; he’d won nine in a row. Jerry Bailey was his jockey, as he was for most of his career. The race call, by Tom Durkin, is perfect, as Durkin really understood the dialogue that goes on between jockey and horse- the jockey understands the way a horse likes to run a race, and the horse answers the jockey’s signals when to run and when to hold back. It’s an incredible dance, happening at 35 miles an hour.
Anyway, the race call always makes a little weepy:
so milkshakes are not PEDs . . . but they hide the presence of PEDs so it is unfair to call them PEDs. And the guy who just happens to provide a lot of milkshakes to his horses also has a higher than average breakdown rate so its unfair to question if those two things are related.
Thanks for clearing that up for us. BTW – what PR firm did you say you worked for?
@Roger Moore: In nature, horses run. Stop to eat. Run some more. Breeding increased the speed (and the nervousness, in some cases) but running is what horses do.
The fact that horses like to run doesn’t mean racing them is ethical. Dogs like to run but, imho, I think dog racing is just a couple of notches above bull fighting. Dogs also fight in the “wild.” Roosters, if left to their own devices, will fight. Certainly dog and cock fighting is beyond the pale.
I don’t base my objections solely on the presence of abuse within a given animal sport. Finding something an animal “likes” to do and then exploiting that for our amusement is, I think, perhaps essentially unethical. It is also completely different from keeping pets which, while endlessly amusing, is more about fulfilling needs — for both the pet as well as his/her “owner.”
Pain isn’t entirely random, very often it’s got a message: something’s wrong. Sometimes the thing is external and specific. (Ow. Maybe I should pull my hand off that stove.) Sometimes it’s more general: You’re doing it wrong and/or overdoing it. (Elbows don’t bend that way) Nature’s little dashboard idiot light. So, dampening when a horse feels pain (especially if done before racing, not after) and oh looky, a bunch of horses overworking themselves isn’t exactly a reach and should be looked into to my mind.
@WereBear: Thoroughbreds also have those wonderful elegant frames, which are fragile and lead to broken legs. And you know what happens next.
Horse racing is objectionable in the same way that breeding unhealthy and physically defective dogs (like many bulldogs) is. A humane civilization wouldn’t breed racing horses in the first place.
Heh, nice “Sullivan”, Mr. Mix.
Still, modern horse racing is nothing short of animal cruelty.
@Schlemizel: Sigh. I’m really, truly, just a horse racing fan. I contributed a wee small amount of money to a fund to get three neglected yearlings to the track- one made it, and the other two, who were ultimately not able to race, are living comfortably on a horse farm. But that’s it.
I said very clearly in my letter in the post that milkshakes are performance enhancers, which is one of the reasons they are banned. What I said is that they don’t contribute to breakdowns. Because they don’t. I don’t call them “PED”s because I don’t know that baking soda, electrolytes and sugar count as “drugs.”
And it makes absolutely no sense to say they do- if the trainer is trying to win a race, why on earth would he or she give the horse something known to cause breakdowns, especially at the top levels of racing? A horse that breaks down doesn’t win a race. Trainers give their horses stuff they think will make them run better, not drop in their tracks.
Unfortunately, many, many factors, including simple bad luck, go into a horse breaking down. In the case of Barbaro and Eight Belles, it was bad luck. Each horse took a bad step. It was odd to see the the screaming about steroids in the wake of Eight Belle’s death, because the filly wasn’t on, and had never been on, steroids (and they were legal then). She was a HUGE filly, but steroids in horses are used to maintain appetite, not bulk them up.
I think the highest contributing factor is overly hard, poorly maintained dirt tracks, but unfortunately, trainers and owners have no control over that. And some racetrack owners want faster times, because they think fans want to see speed records set and so they adjust the track accordingly. Secretariat’s world record time in the Belmont was, it’s been alleged, aided by the track officials souping up the track for the race- the harder the track, the faster they go. And the harder on the animal’s legs.
O’Neill is based in California, and the dirt track out there is hard and fast (desert clime and all). The NY Times would have been more accurate if they’d compared his injury rate with that of the other trainers based in CA, as opposed to the national average.
@mb: The needs “fulfilled” by pet ownership are no different than those “fulfilled” by animals sports- the human’s amusement. We keep pets because it makes up happy and feel good. It’s the same reason we do any sort of recreational activity not directly connected to survival.
People who work with racehorses will tell you, and very sincerely, based on their day-to-day existence with them, that the horses love to race. It’s no different than pet owners telling ourselves that the animals loves us. We don’t know for sure; we don’t speak dog or cat or bird or horse. We can only judge based on the animal’s behavior. And the good racehorses give every indication they know their job and like doing it.
My uncle was a mounted officer, and for awhile rode a retired racehorse named Seven. Seven was as gentle, easygoing and kind a horse as you’d want. You could put children on him. Late in Seven’s life, my uncle’s detail was sent to Penn National Racetrack, where Seven had once raced, for some kind of parade. It had been at least 20 years since Seven had been at a track; most of his life had been policework. But my uncle said as soon as Seven set foot onto the track, his eyes widened, his nostrils flared, and it was all my uncle could do to keep this quiet, mellow, easygoing horse from taking off at a full gallop. Not because he was scared, my uncle said, but because he was excited and clearly wanted to run. Maybe we’re not the only species capable of remembering fondly the things we could do when we were young.
That’s where the tricky part that requires ethics comes in — judging by most of what I’ve read about horses (and I used to be horse-mad, so it’s a fair amount), they have been bred to want to race but also to want to please the humans that they are attached to, and they will literally kill themselves to do that.
Our responsibility as humans is to help them do what they love to do, but also to protect them so they don’t harm themselves out of their desire to please us. I don’t think that banning horse racing altogether is going to solve the problem, but it should probably be much more strictly regulated across the country than it is now.
@Nicole: I used to ride. My horse was just a grade, no visible Thoroughbred blood in him whatsoever (he most resembled a Bashkir Curly, actually), and he loved to race, not that I ever did track racing or anything, just that if I was out on a hack with other horses and we were going for a little gallop, he’d have to be first.
This was also the same horse who’d practically tear your arms out of your sockets trying to get over any jump that was nearby (and used to jump out of — and back into — his paddocks for fun), and would square his feet, arch his neck, lift his tail slightly, and suck in his stomach if there were visitors to the barn when he was tied in the aisle.
They’ve all got their own quirky personalities.
I’m pretty sure that running at full speed past the point of natural fatigue *is* going to increase injury rates.
Fatigue isn’t just a side effect of running out of energy. It’s a natural protection against overexertion to reduce wear and tear on muscles, tendons, joints, etc.
@Nicole: Sorry, Nicole, you’re just wrong. Milkshakes contribute to breakdowns by enabling a horse to exert himself beyond the point where he normally would. The horse is not quite in race shape? No problem, the milkshake will let him run further and faster, straining muscles and ligaments beyond the point warranted by his true condition.
Your question about why a trainer would run a horse who might break down has too simple an answer: money. If I can double a chea horse’s chances of winning a race, it’s probably worth doubling his chances of breaking down. Sad but true. Purse for cheap horses are too high, thanks to the contribution of slots to track revenues.
This article was much more objective and logical than the NY Times piece. First, however, about Secretariat. If he ran on a souped up Belmont track, why did he beat the others by 31 lengths? They would have been helped equally. He has the best times in both the Belmont and the Derby in almost 140 years. Do you think his years were the only ones where the track could have been very fast? Second, he never broke down and merely suffered from an abcess. He did die young, 18, from navicular (hoof) disease. Third, the horses are very expensive and no trainer or owner will sacrifice his horse unnecessarily. They have too much invested and will not be able to get it back if they take extreme chances. In my opinion, most of the problems are at the cheaper tracks where older horses who will never make the big time or who never had the ability in the first place may be overraced. Fortunately, with off-track betting, many of these operations rely on the simulcast races from the big tracks more and therefore have cut back on their live races.
Racehorses are beautiful, well-cared for and give urban dwellers a chance to see non-human athletes. Attempts to find them homes rather than slaughter houses have increased. Furthermore, I believe most of US horse slaughter houses have been closed. Doug O’Neill has rescued at least one retired racehorse himself, using the retired racehorse Lava Man as a stable pony.