"Hay, Oats and Water" sounds like a mantra for equine health from long ago. That's what horses used to live on, if you want to believe it.
The venerable Grayson Jockey Club Foundation even sells t-shirts with the slogan "Hay, Oats and Water" emblazoned on it. But if you walked around the track with those three words on your chest, no one might get it. They'd think it was the name of a rock band.
Back in 1988, at a Saratoga Round-Table conducted by The Jockey Club, Dr. Gary Lavin, a Kentucky veterinarian and horse breeder, bluntly stated: ''Hay, oats and water is a dream we can never achieve.''
Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud shot back, ''I ran on hay, oats and water for 50 years...a week before a race you stopped and you ran him clean. It can be done.'' Steven Crist, then with the New York Times, was there to write it all down; 25 years later, the dialogue is pretty much the same.
But maybe the old slogan is ready for a comeback. Ogden Mills Phipps, the chairman of The Jockey Club, released a personal statement today through the organization. He praised a recent initiative from the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI).
On March 28, the RCI called for a phase-out of the use of medication in horses over a five-year period.
RCI's new Chair, William Koester, the Chairman of the Ohio State Racing Commission, said, "Today over 99% of Thoroughbred racehorses and 70% of Standardbred racehorses have a needle stuck in them four 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."
Mr. Koester noted that "change is inevitable" and called for the association "to take the moral high ground and implement drug rules that mirror the racing in Australia, Dubai, Europe, Hong Kong, and even Russia."
Today's statement from Phipps--himself a leading breeder and owner of top racing horses--adds another voice to the chorus.
Here's an excerpt from his statement:
"We have often voiced concern and we sincerely believe that the overuse of medication endangers our human and equine athletes, threatens the integrity of our sport and erodes consumer confidence in our game," Phipps said. "There is a growing and correct perception that horses in this country are over-medicated.
"The percentage of total starts with furosemide injections on race day in this country has increased from just over 45% in 1991 to nearly 95% in 2010," he said. "And nearly 90% of all two-year-old starters receive furosemide on race day.
"Horses should compete only when they are free from the influence of medication."
"The Jockey Club and the Thoroughbred Safety Committee encourage the member organizations of the RCI to work with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, the American Association of Equine Practitioners and other industry stakeholders to immediately develop a strategic plan and set a timeline for the development of rules and penalties to transition the U.S. to medication-free racing. The Jockey Club stands ready to assist in those activities.
"The ban on anabolic steroids proved that when this industry works collaboratively, game-changing progress can be made in a short period of time," Phipps said. "We need more of that spirit of cooperation and a greater sense of urgency."
You may not know that the United States stands apart from most other leading nations in both racing and showing by having a medication policy much more liberal than others.
Some European nations even have governmental regulations prohibiting certain medications in horses during competition. Who could forget the Federation Equestre Internationale's (FEI) ill-fated attempt to liberalize its medication policy in late 2009? The international organization governing horse sports ran head-on into individual welfare and governmental regulations in member countries.
Perhaps the best horses are just the best horses, but when American horses go abroad and are forced to race or jump under no-medication rules, they are taken off medication and still perform very well. In fact, eight of the last 16 winners of the Dubai World Cup, run under more strict medication rules, have been American horses.
U.S. sport horses also compete well on the world stage, winning medals at the Olympics and World Equestrian Games, which are conducted under zero-tolerance rules. At the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, the United States was second only to Germany in the total medal tally, and won three gold medals.
American medication policy is thought to play a role in international reluctance to choose American horses for breeding .
But nationwide medication policies can't be made only with world-beating champions in mind. Rules have to be made that protect the lower ranks, with an eye to prolonging racing careers and keeping races filled. A policy must be made that considers the welfare of all horses, and especially the most vulnerable. Can it be done without medication, the way it is done in other countries? Is a sweeping change possible?
It would be like switching all the cars on American roads to diesel fuel, overnight. Congress would probably have to bail out the veterinary pharmaceutical industry.
A change in medication policy should be industry wide, perhaps even encompassing both showing and racing. Even American yearlings are suspect to foreign buyers. Many recreational horse owners are reluctant to take on off-track Thoroughbreds because they wonder "what all those years of drugs might have done to him". What is the answer to that question? Is there one?
Mr Phipps was chairman of the New York Racing Association (NYRA) for a long reign in the 1970s and into the 80s. What glory days those were! As racing in other states yielded to the demand for more lenient medication rules, New York held itself to a tougher standard and led the nation in purses and a high-quality state-bred program. In fact, New York's internal struggle with how to handle medication goes on; just last year the state changed its detention barn policy, which kept horses isolated on race day. New York was the last major racing jurisdiction to allow furosemide ("Lasix").
Phipps ended his tenure at NYRA to ascend to the chairmanship of The Jockey Club.
Phipps' official reign at NYRA included the years of Seattle Slew and Affirmed winning the Triple Crown at New York's Belmont Park. John Henry was touring the country, year after year, winning the handicaps; champions like Spectacular Bid and Buckpasser were household words. Those were the years when the concept of the Breeders Cup was born; the first was run in 1984. The Breeders Cup gave American stars like Azeri, A.P. Indy, Alysheba, Cigar, Curlin, Personal Ensign, Ferdinand, Sunday Silence, Zenyatta a chance to prove themselves against the world's best.
Yes, the world's greatest racehorses came to run against them, but there were grumbles about the medications, even in New York. The foreign trainers had to decide whether to stick to their own medication policies or use drugs like furosemide "just in case". Likewise, they had to decide whether to change their horses' shoes and opt for toe grabs and turndowns if they were switching to racing on dirt, since most foreign horses normally run on grass. "When in Rome...," they would sigh.
The problem is: we all know what happened to Rome.