I was at Canterbury Park on June 6, along with 12,000 other fans, thrilled to see American Pharoah claim the Triple Crown. After 37 years without such a champion. And then, four days later, a disheartening, not-well-informed piece from Kavitha Davidson in the Star Tribune (“ After Triple Crown victory, it’s time to talk,” June 10), tells me that I had just witnessed nothing more than an example of “inherent cruelty,” that American Pharoah is a victim of “institutionalized animal abuse,” and that the sport I have loved, studied and participated in for 60 years is a “sport of vice,” sustained by a “system of gambling and doping.”
The irony is that I, like Davidson, am opposed to all race-day medication for racing horses.
I trust Davidson’s good intentions, but I question her knowledge about the sport she condemns. Other than the 2012 New York Times’ racing “investigation,” which was questionable for its misleading and sometimes incorrect interpretations of data, she cites no other sources for her conclusions.
“Lasix,” she writes, “is often administered on race day along with up to 26 other permitted substances …” Does this mean every horse receiving Lasix also receives many additional substances? The article’s implication is that every breakdown is due to the effects of Lasix, or the strain of racing, or the coercion of a resistant animal. But many injuries are not, and happen in other ways off the track.
In Barbaro’s case, he was not put down as a result of his injury in the Preakness, as Davidson hints. In fact, subsequent surgery was successful, though career-ending, and recovery very probable. He was euthanized because of laminitis — the same disease that killed Secretariat 16 years after his retirement.
Davidson implies that racing on Lasix even once can cause death. Of the tragic breakdown of the colt Helwan, she says, “It was Helwan’s first time racing on Lasix.” But racing with first-time Lasix does not cause a breakdown; the negative effects of continued Lasix on bone structure take a long time to accumulate. Nor is racing an “abnormally” strenuous physical activity that “undoubtedly” always causes pulmonary bleeding. Strenuous, yes; abnormal, no. Otherwise, horses racing in other countries that prohibit race-day Lasix would have ended long ago (and human marathon runs would be banned). Few horses really need Lasix, and here Davidson is right to say that horses who bleed should not be racing.
Referring to “several top trainers” who want to ban race-day Lasix, Davidson gives the impression that only a relative few in the sport are concerned about this. Surprisingly, she did not mention the new Coalition for Horseracing Integrity that has been formed to support recently introduced legislation in Congress to grant authority for developing and administering an anti-doping program for U.S. thoroughbred horse racing to the independent, nonprofit U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Members of the coalition include the Jockey Club, the growing Water Hay Oats Alliance (WHOA), the Humane Society of the United States and the Breeders’ Cup organization. (Visit www.horseracingintegrity.com).
Cheaters in every sport we will have with us always, but they rarely win in the end.
As for the idea that horses do not give consent to participating in their sport, this is not quite true. It is not difficult to understand equine language if you understand horses. Nothing will make a resistant horse cooperate without breaking his spirit, and without that spirit there is no athlete. They cannot be made to run faster than their natural ability. They tell you when they are happy, angry, sick or afraid.
The thoroughbred is by nature competitive: Within a day or two of birth foals start racing each other around the paddock. If a horse does not enjoy racing, a wise owner will find him another job, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is in his economic self-interest.
No one who watched American Pharoah run to glory could doubt that, as he came down the Belmont stretch with his ears up, his mane and abbreviated tail flying, he was in his element, happily showing us what greatness looks like.
That is a great gift, freely given.
Lyn Cowan lives in Eagan.