Whenever speed and stamina are central to a sport, it usually has a drug problem. Cycling has a perennial problem with doping dating back at least to 1903. Athletics and swimming are rife with it. It is an even bigger problem in horse racing, as both the horse and the jockey are in play.
Drug abuse in sport is a serious issue that undermines its integrity and respectability. Even worse, it also affects the health and well-being of the competitors, which in horse racing can involve the rider and his/her horse and their opponents on the track. While all countries are affected, US horse racing faces some unique challenges in dealing with drug abuse, particularly of the equine variety.
In this column, we’ll examine drug abuse by jockeys and the doping of horses.
Recreational Drug Use Among Jockeys
In racing, horses are the ones doing the heavy lifting – the real athletes, if you may. But that does not mean that being a jockey is a walk in the park. It is a dangerous, high-stress work environment. The mortality risk for jockeys is far higher than in other sports.
While performance-enhancing drugs (for weight loss or focus) are a problem for jockeys, it is not the leading cause of positive drug tests in horse racing. That dubious distinction goes to cocaine, with more and more jockeys testing positive in recent years, both in the UK and the United States.
Being a jockey is often a thankless task. If you win, the horse gets most of the credit, perhaps quite rightfully so. But if you lose, it’s just obscurity and on to the next race. Given the high-pressure work environment, jockeys are more susceptible to alcohol and drug abuse.
Even champion jockeys at the elite level are not immune. As recent as October 2020, British racing received its biggest shock when Oisin Murphy tested positive for cocaine. He is far from the only big name associated with drug use in the sport – Frankie Dettori and William Carson have been linked to cocaine abuse in the past.
The use of substances like cocaine and marijuana by jockeys presents a massive safety hazard. When you are in control of a 1000 lbs animal tearing around the track at speeds of 30mph or more, you need to be in full control of your mind and body.
Newer testing systems used by horse racing authorities worldwide, involving hair samples instead of just urine, have resulted in more accurate results. The number of jockeys testing positive has also risen as a result. These days, bans extending to five years are quite common for jockeys caught using cocaine.
However, stricter enforcement alone will not do the trick – the sport also needs to take proactive steps to address jockeys’ psychological issues. Drug use of this kind can often be more of a coping mechanism than an outright attempt to improve performance. With the right support systems, drug abuse could be curtailed.
The equine side of the story is a bit different.
Doping Horses with Another Kind of “White Powder”
Though doping has a long and storied history in horse racing, it became systemic in the second half of the 20th century, after WW II. Before the war, doping instances usually meant the use of chemicals to prevent a horse from winning – either for rigged bets or as a ploy to take out an opponent. Preferred methods often involved injections of morphine and strychnine.
As the pharma industry grew after the war, trainers had access to a glut of new exciting performance enhancers. Not all the doping instances required high-end chemicals from labs, however. Perhaps the best example of this is “milkshake,” a home-made concoction of baking soda, glucose, citrates, and other salts.
Originating in Australian racing sometime in the late 1980s, it has become quite prevalent globally, even in the United States. Baking soda is useful in middle and long-distance races, where horses can have lactic acid build-up due to oxygen starvation in the muscles.
The theory behind it is that the bicarbonate reduces the acid levels in the horse’s muscles, delaying lactic acid build-up, improving endurance and late-stage energy levels. While it is generally harmless to the horse, it still gives an illegal performance boost to the animal. Testing the horse’s blood CO2 levels is a reliable method used by authorities to screen for baking soda.
Another Issue “Bleeders” Is More Controversial
Racing enthusiasts are probably familiar with the concept of “bleeding” – a relatively common condition among racehorses, where the blood starts to flow from their noses after a race. This bleeding is due to a medical condition called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH).
EIPH occurs when the lung capillaries inside the horse burst due to high blood pressure. This blood can then enter the windpipe of the horse and eventually come out through the nose. Many horses can suffer from relatively milder bouts of bleeding without any long-term effects. But in older horses, continued bleeding can lead to permanent damage to the lungs.
Since the 1960s, trainers have used Furosemide, commonly called Lasix, to prevent bleeding. Over time, Lasix’s use has become a well-established practice in US racing circles, where almost all horses are given the substance, ostensibly to prevent bleeding.
But under this humane rationale lies a more troubling aspect – one of Lasix’s side effects is weight-loss through excessive urination. A horse can lose as much as 15 lbs on race day through fluid loss using Lasix, a diuretic. The performance boost from this can make all the difference on the track.
Lasix use is controversial because very few horses are actual bleeders, according to various studies. In the beginning, the rules demanded a medical certificate for the use of the drug. These days, any horse can be given Lasix. Estimates indicate that a whopping 95% of US racehorses have Lasix in their systems on race day.
Doping’s Impact on the Long-Term Survivability of Horse Racing
Lasix may be the most well-known and over the top example of doping in horse racing, but there are many more less-documented practices. Overuse of steroids, painkillers, muscle relaxants, pharmaceuticals, liquid nitrogen, and even snake venom have been documented over the years.
Many of the organizations reporting on these issues are animal rights groups like PETA. The high incidence of horse deaths on the race tracks, often due to drug use, only gives these groups potent ammunition to use against the sport as a whole.
The death of horses is a tragedy that needs to be urgently addressed. But the use of chemicals in horses can also have unintended side effects on human health. A significant number of racehorses eventually end up in slaughterhouses – and meat contaminated with these drugs can pose health risks to humans who eat it.
Horse Racing Needs to Take Action
Even before the pandemic, the racing industry was struggling economically, particularly in the US. The sport is not attracting the crowds it used to in the past. Not to mention the bevy of negative stories surrounding the sport, involving horse deaths, slaughter, and drug use, driving a newer generation away from it.
There is still hope. The sport is worth billions of dollars to the US economy, with hundreds of thousands of jobs relying on it across the country. But in the realm of doping, the US horse racing needs cohesive action – while other countries have banned substances like Lasix, this is still not the case in US racing.
The patchwork of state laws on horse racing is a huge obstacle. A centralized framework of rules and a competent authority is lacking. A shake-up is essential if racing is to survive into the latter half of the 21st century.