Major League Baseball (MLB) and U. S. horse racing both have a drug and image problem. This week, the all-time home-run king Barry Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice in a federal probe of steroid use and last week the exceptional pure-hitter Manny Ramirez abruptly retired rather than accept a 100-game suspension for purportedly testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug for a second time. Meanwhile, back in Kentucky, Richard Dutrow Jr. had his license application denied by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission for numerous medication violations and New York may also revoke his license. Just three years ago, Mr. Dutrow trained the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

At racetracks across the United States, phenybutazone and furosemide are routinely legally administered to the vast majority of the entries in every race, including the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup, and other graded stakes. Never mind the administration of illegal drugs that don’t get detected or do get detected and the offending trainer is then usually punished with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. Or, he or she may simply move on to another state jurisdiction with impunity.

Despite MLB’s widely publicized issues with drug abuse, the sport overall is still doing well at the ticket counter and in selling the product to the television networks. It seems that there may be truth, in this case, to the adage that “crime pays.” Fans don’t seem to be punishing MLB for the transgressions of many of its icons. One reason may be that MLB has instituted a very well-spelled-out policy with respect to substance abuse and enforces it. Players get a 50-game suspension for the initial violation, a 100-game suspension for the second, and a lifetime ban for the third. No one has yet received the lifetime ban.

If U. S. racing had a comparable policy, a number of trainers would have had to find other occupations countless violations ago.

The situation in horse racing pertaining to substance abuse is more damaging than it is in MLB. The majority of fans who attend MLB and/or watch on television are not betting on the games, whereas in horse racing that is not the case, at least for people actually at a racetrack or simulcasting facility. Pari-mutuel wagering has plummeted in recent years. One cause may be that bettors have left for plays they see as being more honest.

Moreover, imagine how members of the public react when they read and hear that, for instance, cobra venom was found at the Keeneland barn of the internationally known racehorse trainer Patrick Biancone. The man or woman on the street sees or learns of a breakdown during the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness and, rightly or wrongly, concludes, “Not surprising, these innocent animals are drugged.”

Offering lame excuses for why something substantive cannot be done about outlaw trainers and permissive drug policies will no longer work to sweep these problems under the rug. The action by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission in denying Richard Dutrow Jr. a license is the right measure. Bravo.

U. S. racing has to get the drugs and thugs out of this wonderful and elegant sport and do it pronto. The alternative is the continued alienation of the betting public and the general public. That is a sure recipe for disaster. The precipice for racing may not be around the corner but it could be down the street.

Don’t wait on the Racing Commissioners International to finalize its commendable comprehensive raceday medication policy. Move now with tough measures that require a stiffer spine than the industry has shown in the past.

For starters, beginning in 2012, the racing authorities in Kentucky, Maryland, and New York should agree to prohibit raceday medication of any kind for the Triple Crown races. The Breeders’ Cup should put the same proviso regarding its races into its agreement with a host track, not in five years but in 2012. The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association’s American Graded Stakes Committee should stipulate that, as of 2012, graded-stakes status will be withheld from any race in which raceday medication is permitted.

Further, the big racing states can take the lead in imposing long suspensions of trainers for an agreed-upon number of drug violations as well as an irrevocable lifetime ban for habitual flagrant behavior. MLB has accommodated concerns about due process and so can racing.

All of this is good for business, and is therefore enlightened self interest. The pari-mutuel product will be more appealing and racing’s image will be enhanced. A byproduct of no raceday medication should be popular breeding stallions and broodmares with fewer soundness problems to pass on to their progeny.

Racetracks, state racing commissions, Breeders’ Cup, and American Graded Stakes Committee: Do the right thing and do it before it is too late to salvage a centuries-old cultural icon. You need to hang together or else everyone will hang separately. Don’t let racing die a death by a thousand cuts.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business


  1. Show your proof that someone had a drug violation and simply moved to another state jurisdiction with impunity.Doesn’t happen. This pie in the sky notion that baning race day meds will make horses sounder is false. The horses that winn will be popular sound or not . Bold Ruler was a criple but became one of the best stallions ever

  2. I am amazed that people continue to misunderstand the issue of medication in this sport. What we have is a PR problem propagated by the unsubstantiated theory that somehow Lasix can affect the genetic makeup of future horses. Lasix is blamed for all sorts of things by writers and others who love conspiracy theories because it and trainers are an easy target. Lasix has been made into a villainous drug in the public’s eye by writers who who have this ridiculous notion that MORE horses bleed because of Lasix than less. Based on recent scientific studies that show Lasix IS effective in preventing or at the very least lessening EIPH incidents the fact that most horses race on it would seem logical. Why would you not want to prevent EIPH in your horse if you could? Especially considering it the cost ($20) versus the cost of treatment post race if your horse bleeds in any significant manner not even mentioning that preventing bleeding is far more humane for the horse than simply hoping they wont. But of course along come writers like this one who demonize the use of Lasix because “the public” which he and his fellow journalists and bloggers have misinformed are so “up in arms” about its use. Of course the Lasix debate has absolutely nothing to do with the issue of illegal performance enhancing drugs which are the real problem.

    The public has a problem with “drugs” in racehorses because you have told them there is a problem. We were promised a whole slew of benefits when anabolic steroids were banned. Yet here we are a few years down the road and absolutely none of those promises have come to fruition. I hate to tell you but getting rid of Lasix (virtually no state legally allows bute to be given on raceday despite the misinformation given regularly) is going to have even less positive benefits and in many cases will make the transition period even worse. Horses form will be more erratic as trainers and vets look for different ways to treat bleeding issues. Do you really think that people who have invested lots of money in horses are simply going to retire them if they bleed? What people forget is that Lasix was allowed in response to a problem that it hasn’t cured. Horses are continuing to make fewer starts (of course this started in 1960 according to JC stats and that was long before lasix was widely used) but I am astonished to hear that people believe that banning it will somehow lead to that trend reversing. As long as we continue to baby 2 year olds (ie, hardly race them which drags the starts per year down) and trainers are chosen based on winning percentages, horses will make fewer starts.

    Racing has the perception of a drug problem that was created by itself. But banning lasix and thinking you are solving the problem is a symptom of far bigger problem within racing itself. That is the leaders of the sport are either clueless or corrupt and sadly in some cases both. Making villains out of all trainers for simply trying to deal with horses health issues with modern medicine has backfired. The constant negative press about this misunderstood issue has just added to the burden that the game of horse racing carries. It is going to happen. Lasix will soon be gone. But horses will still bleed, some trainers will still perform “magic”, starts will continue to go down and “the breed” will continue down the same path that it has. My question to you is…what then? Who takes the fall once all legal means of treating issues are taken away? What are we going to blame for all our issues then? Barry Bonds I suppose….

  3. Bill Shanklin says

    TO ThomasMc:

    Bold Ruler did not get raceday medication…was not permitted in 1957 and 1958. I agree that the horses that win will be the most popular as sires. However, the most popular will be the ones that can win the big races without raceday medication. You remark: ” Show your proof that someone had a drug violation and simply moved to another state jurisdiction with impunity. Doesn’t happen.” It just happened last week. Mr. Dutrow was denied a license in Kentucky for numerous violations and is still training in other states.

  4. Bill Shanklin says

    TO DDelaney:

    Believe you are blaming the messenger–the media and bloggers. The issue is more about perception than science. Regardless of the pros and cons of Lasix, it is essential that the betting public believes that racing is not distorted by drugs and that the general public does not blame breakdowns like Eight Belles on drugged racehorses. The Europeans do fine without raceday medication.

  5. This is the most actionable article I’ve seen on this topic. Well thought out and doable. Thanks for writing this.

  6. Murray Johnson says

    To say Bold Ruler was drugs free is a joke! They had drugs just no test.
    @D Delaney Nice to see someone who has an understanding of this subject. The public is misinformed by the media as they are about most subjects. The writer is spreading misinformation and doing more damage to the sport. He has to write something or he will not eat. How is the public going to react to horse returning after a race streaming blood from the nostrils ? Not running on Lasix is animal abuse ! If no lasix is the answer why is racing in England,Ireland and Australia in decline? Why can the media not mention that in NY they tested 40,000 horses and had 20, yes 2 0 positives! Why is South Africa adopting the use of Lasix? As mentioned the study done by Vets from all over the world proved without doubt it reduces bleeding in racehorses! Why should horses suffer just because people who are not fans of racing preceive something that is not true? If you want to make decisions in your life based on what the media and Bloggers write, good luck! Anyone who thinks in Europe they don’t run on drugs is just as naive ! Most horsemen are the true animal lovers,who work long hours and 7 days a week for very small return.
    Comparing US racing, which races 90% on the dirt around 1 mile or less oval shaped tracks, and run faster in the first 1/4 mile than the last 1/4 mile just shows how little these people know about racing!
    To condemn everyone in racing because of a couple of Dutrow’s is akin to saying every person who plays baseball is the same as Barry Bonds!
    People need to get off the bandwagon and get educated about racing!

  7. Murray Johnson says

    Read the profile of the writer! Smart man who has NO formal education in Equine or Veterinary science! Never owned a horse, never trained a horse and my guess never bets on horses!
    Business is what he knows yet no mention of his business success! Maybe he played alittle baseball.

  8. Bill Shanklin says

    To Murray Johnson:

    I can see that you are a bit perturbed. Let me address a couple of your points: “The writer is spreading misinformation and doing more damage to the sport. He has to write something or he will not eat.” FYI, I write this blog purely to help the horse racing industry do a better job of marketing itself because I have the expertise to do so. I do not accept advertising, in order to be independent, and do not write for a living and am not a journalist. Therefore, I can say what I mean. You also state: “I read the profile of the writer! Smart man who has NO formal education in Equine or Veterinary science! Never owned a horse, never trained a horse and my guess never bets on horses! Business is what he knows yet no mention of his business success!” You evidently did not read my bio. I worked for years as a young person with horses and owned, trained, and showed them. Worked in the summers between college semesters as an assistant to the official racetrack vet at CHDN. Started wagering on racing as a teenager and still do. As for business, have worked for many prominent companies and have served on boards of directors. Moreover, as I said to another poster, the drug issue is more about public perception than it is about veterinary science, more in the realm of marketing and PR. Finally, you should get your facts straight before making assertions, such as those about me and by implication that Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons ran Bold Ruler on raceday medication. Finally, I am certainly not criticizing all trainers, just the ones who give the sport a black eye. I stick by everything I said in the article.

  9. The Europeans rest their horses when they bleed, Murray, not race them again and mask the problem with Lasix.

  10. Murray Johnson says

    Show horses are not performing anything like racehorses, yet the drugs are used alot and given by the trainers as they want. Go to KHP and look in their drug trunk! I have never seen the “official ” vet at CD treat a horse ! Have you heard of Alex Harthill? He did Sonny’s work , do I need to say more! Just because something is marketed well doesn’t make good. McDonalds is well marketed but do you eat it? The Lottery is marketed well but is buying lottery tickets a smart thing to do?
    I read under “About” the profile of you not a mention of your horse experience??
    @ Ginny . European races are run totally differently to US races and they are struggling with field sizes also. If you think they don’t use drugs for bleeders, your wrong. Lasix is the better of these drugs and why do the Europeans use Lasix when they run in the US? Also all horses bled just some to the point it harms them, even human atheletes bleed!
    What will the perception of racing be when several horses a day return with blood streaming out the nose? And how are owner going feel when the horse is banned for life after the second bleeding episode? Horse bleed! Lasix does not mask it , it helps reduce it. That is the fact!
    When Lasix was not allowed in NY the horses were treated with several less effective drugs not less drugs. Is this what you want?
    Why are horsemen against the banning of Lasix? Because they are all thugs?

  11. Bill Shanklin says


    If you also read the link on my website called “Why Horse Racing Business” you will find a mention of my background with equines. Even if someone does not let you know of a background experience does not mean that you can conclude he/she lacks it. I have not only heard of Alex Harthill, he was the vet for a horse I owned. Whether he and Sunny Jim medicated Bold Ruler is a matter of conjecture on your part. Since both Dr. Harthill and Sunny Jim are gone, we can’t ask them and they would not tell us anyway. The smoking gun in the Dancer’s Image DQ in the Derby was never found in terms of who administered the bute, although Dr. Harthill was the leading suspect. The vast majority of trainers are men and women who work long and hard in a difficult task. The thugs are the few who administer cobra venom and other such trash to innocent animals. By the way, you asked me about wagering. I don’t know if you are the trainer Murray Johnson, but if so, I want you to know that I put a few dollars down on Perfect Drift. The wisdom of the market will eventually determine whether U. S. racing bans raceday medication, as bettors vote for or against horse racing, rather than you and me and trainers. Right now, they are voting against. Medication is just one contributing issue, but an important one. I respect you and your views, but you and I simply disagree, although your contention about Lasix has some merit, but so does the other side of the argument. Best Regards.

  12. Murray Johnson says

    And yes I’m perturbed that the industry that is declining rapidly would do things that will add to decline! I have never worked in any other industry and although I may not be as “educated” as others I have worked for several Hall of Fame trainers and I am atleast the 5th generation of my family to work in the industry going back to W S Cox, after whom the richest WFA race in the southern hemisphere is named. The common thread I have with all the horsemen I know is the love of the horse.

  13. Murray Johnson says

    The drug issue needs to be addressed in the US but to blame that for decline is wrong. The othe other countries are experiencing similar declines.
    When I arrived in the USA 30 years ago there was no Lottery, casinos only in Vegas and Alantic City. NASCAR was not around, no off track betting, no ADW’s . NBA, NFL, WNBA, MLB have all expanded 20 to 40%, no online Poker and Texas Hold’em was non existent. And the number of racetracks has increased. Just maybe these things have lead to the decline of racing the USA.

  14. Bill Shanklin says

    Certainly there are a myriad of reasons, notably the developments you point out, plus offshore wagering etc.

  15. Bill, I have nothing to say on Lasix because, like many others, I am not a scientist. I do know, however, that the roots of the improper and illegal drug problems lie at the feet of stewards and racing commissioners who are empowered to effectively regulate the industry and have failed to do so due to their extremely liberal attitudes. Horse racing doesen’t need federal legislation, it needs regulators who will simply apply existing state regulations when violators are caught. Stewards’ orders need to contain the word “Years” in their adjudications in place of days. The base of the problem is not the rules, but the people attempting to enforce them. They need to be replaced. They have done a terrible job, as many have recognized, and some proposed rule changes would remove the discretion of punishment from the stewards. They will not have to think, just read it from the rule book.