I’ll Have Another Controversy Sets Stage for Today’s Senate Hearing on Medication and Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Thoroughbred Racehorses

What recently retired racehorse is casting a shadow over the future of racing?

All it took was yesterday’s story in the New York Times to push a brewing controversy over the edge.

Most American readers of The Jurga Report will know that I’ll Have Another, winner of the 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, was on his way to possibly winning the Triple Crown when he was suddenly scratched (withdrawn) the day before the race.

His owner and trainer cited the sudden appearance of a swollen tendon in his fetlock region as the reason. A dramatic press conference was held on the backside of Belmont Park. A disappointed fan base wondered if they will ever have another–another Triple Crown winner, that is. The last was Affirmed in 1978.

It didn’t take long for the next announcement: the horse will never run again. Ever. And, a few weeks after that, the news that the gutsy three-year-old colt was on his way to Japan to stand at stud, after a $10 million offer from buyers there proved too much for the owners to turn down.

Not only would be never see the horse run again, we’ll probably never see him again, period.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. In fact, it might be only the end of the beginning.

I’ll Have Another’s trainer, California-based Doug O’Neill, has been found guilty of multiple medication violations in multiple states. Some would like to pin all the problems facing US horse racing on this one man.

In reality, there is plenty of blame to go around, as most of us know. But the problem is, this time Doug O’Neill didn’t do anything illegal. He didn’t break any rules in the way he treated his horse. But the way he treated the public? You can decide.

Belmont 581 by Nina Hubbs Zurier

The 2012 Belmont Stakes: The horserace that isn't quite over yet.

Today’s news, shared early this morning by the New York Times, suggests that Doug O’Neill knew throughout the horse’s preparation for the Belmont that his horse was unsound. The story stated that the horse had been diagnosed with osteoarthritis after a post-Preakness set of radiographs and that two days before the Belmont “the colt was injected with two powerful painkillers as well as a synthetic joint fluid”.

I’m trying to think of a horse I’ve owned that hasn’t had that same diagnosis after a radiograph. As in: “His hock looks okay but you can see a little bit of arthritis showing up here in the fetlock….” The vet is referring to a radiographic finding, not something that is making the horse lame.

The information disclosed in the article is important but it is so incomplete that we’re left with many more questions than answers.

The veterinarian who treated the horse and who diagnosed both the arthritis and the tendon injury was not interviewed, perhaps understandably. Instead, four veterinarians not familiar with the horse reviewed the information written on the medical records and shared their comments with the newspaper.

The article does not name the medications used on the horse, it does not give dosages and, most egregiously in my opinion, it does not compare I’ll Have Another’s medical records with those of other three-year-old Thoroughbreds in training for major stakes races–in New York or anywhere else.

This story gets better. Today the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will host a hearing on medication in Thoroughbred racing. Among those set to testify is Dr Sheila Lyons, a veterinarian from here in Massachusetts who was also interviewed tonight about the I’ll Have Another story on NBC News.

It’s pretty obvious that it is no coincidence that the Times decided to publish its article on the eve of the Congressional hearing.

The hearing, “Medication and Performance Enhancing Drugs in Horse Racing”, will examine the prevalence and use of medications and performance enhancing drugs in horse racing, according to a press release, and is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. EDT  in the Russell Senate Office Building, Room 253 of the US Capitol.

The only good news to come out of all this is a footnote from the Senate committee: The hearing will be webcast live via the the Senate Commerce Committee website. Instructions are to to refresh the Commerce Committee homepage 10 minutes before the scheduled start time to automatically begin streaming the webcast.

None of I’ll Have Another’s connections will be testifying so it’s not likely that any new information about that particular horse will surface. But the possibility of federal intervention in horse racing–which is currently governed by more than 30 individual racing commissions around the country–hangs in the air.

What affects horse racing impacts the entire horse industry. Racing is like a big generator at a rock concert that you can’t see or hear, but all the sound and lighting on stage are wired to it. It’s out of sight. You forget it’s there. It’s in that big black truck with all the cables running to it. Cables you never noticed until you started looking for them.

It is the same with horse shows, breeding, endurance, eventing, rodeo and everything short of carousel horses. Racing can continue to breathe life into the rest of horse activities. Or it can take it away.

Whether you feel it or not, the American horse industry will be holding its breath while the Senate hearing goes on. Maybe you’d better tune in.

Update:

Blood-Horse: Vets Say I’ll Have Another’s Treatments Not Unusual

Courier-Journal (Louisville): Doug O’Neill responds to NY Times allegations

Associated Press: Doug O’Neill Abandons Appeal of Suspension

Photo credits: top shadow image by Andrea Vallejos; racehorse legs in motion by Nina Hubbs Zurier



jumping-foal-713469 by Fran Jurga
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