Win, Place, and Dope

Why it matters that racehorses are on steroids.

On Saturday, women in fancy hatsand men in seersucker suits will converge in Louisville, Ky., for the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby. Since last year’s Derby, won by the steroid-aided Big Brown, horse racing has tried to clean up its act, with horse-juicing now banned on most North American tracks (including Churchill Downs). In a story last year, Daniel Engber pointed out that we have no proof that steroids hurt thoroughbreds—yet it makes sense to ban the practice anyway. The original piece is reprinted below. (Also check out Tommy Craggs’$2 2006 essay on the Kentucky Derby, “ The Weirdest Two Minutes in Sports.”)

A horse race

The great horse-doping scandal of 2008 began last month when trainer Rick Dutrow admitted to giving his Thoroughbreds—including Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown—monthly injections of Winstrol, an anabolic steroid. “I don’t know what it does,” he explained. “I just like using it.” Two days ago, the New York Times reported that Dutrow also enjoys using clenbuterol —a bronchial dilator that’s been shown to induce muscle growth in cattle.

Did Dutrow’s injections help Big Brown win the Derby? (Racing without the drug on June 8, the horse made a stunning last-place finish in the Belmont.) Could anabolic steroids have pushed the filly Eight Belles to break both her ankles in Churchill Downs? And what about Barbaro’s shattered leg?

Mustering obligatory outrage, Congress called a hearing last week to investigate charges of fraud and animal cruelty. Dutrow called in sick for the hearing, but his Brian McNamee moment had already set off a binge of self-criticism in racing circles. The Jockey Club recommended a ban on all anabolic steroids; Big Brown’s owners unilaterally volunteered to make their stable steroid-free; and racing officials proclaimed that horse-juicing would be eliminated in a matter of months. Witnesses on Capitol Hill spoke of “leveling the playing the field” and protecting the horses from unscrupulous trainers.

This posturing makes no sense. There’s nothing unfair about horse-juicing, and it’s not clear that anabolic steroids are harmful to the animals. As with almost every discussion of doping in professional sports, the case for prohibition is based on an unthinking, puritanical zeal for “natural performance” and bogus readings of the medical literature. But in this case, the lawmakers and industry officials happened to use the wrong arguments to reach the right conclusion. In fact, horse racing is the only major sport that should ban steroids from competition.

Before we get to that, let’s look at the two standard arguments against horse-juicing: first, that it provides an unfair advantage to certain horses and owners; second, that it endangers the animals.

There’s certainly a strong incentive to guarantee the fairness of Thoroughbred racing: $15 billion is wagered on the sport every year. It’s clear, though, that anabolic steroids aren’t skewing the odds. Every trainer has access to the drugs, and there’s no rule against using them. Among the 38 states with horse racing, 28 have no regulations at all concerning anabolic steroids. (That includes the three states that host Triple Crown races.) The remaining 10 states have a partial ban that makes an exception for four drugs—including Winstrol. And in the states with more stringent rules, the prohibitions apply only on race day, not during the months of training that come before. In other words, there’s nothing on the books to stop a guy like Dutrow from juicing his horses on a regular basis. Indeed, “most all” trainers use anabolic steroids to help Thoroughbreds recover from their workouts, according to senior track veterinarian Larry Bramlage. If everyone has access to steroids, then how is it cheating to use them?

Plenty of “performance-enhancing” technologies are embraced in horse racing, including many that clearly cause harm to the animals. It’s not cheating, for example, to make your horse go faster by whipping its shoulder with a riding crop or to inject it with furosemide, a drug that prevents bleeding in the lungs and may improve racing times. Breeders cross and recross lines to produce animals of freakish proportions, with broad, powerful upper bodies and spindly knees and ankles. A colt that isn’t developing properly may undergo a surgical procedure to straighten its legs. There’s nothing natural about any of this, but there’s nothing “unfair” about it, either.

What about the health problems associated with anabolic steroids? Rick Arthur, the equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, argues that they “change the horse both physically and mentally.” When the state passed its partial ban in January 2007, Arthur proclaimed that “anabolic steroids allow horses to train harder. Perhaps, too hard. … [E]liminating [them] could very well have a favorable long-term impact on the longevity of horses’ racing careers.” (PDF)

On the surface, it might seem like more animals are dying in competition than ever before. A sudden (but temporary) spike in the yearly death totals for California racehorses prompted Arthur’s concern. Two weeks ago, the Associated Press published a survey that connected the deaths of Barbaro and Eight Belles to a series of shocking numbers about the sport: Thoroughbred racetracks have reported more than 5,000 deaths since 2003, or about three every day.

But the data on catastrophic injuries are spotty at best. The AP report gives only absolute totals; it doesn’t tell us how the injury rate has changed over the years. It’s altogether possible that the rate has remained stable for decades, or even decreased over time. According to the Jockey Club, Thoroughbreds have been running fewer races per year, on average, than in past decades. (The numbers reached a peak in 1960.) It’s not clear how, or if, that relates to the number of race-related deaths.

Meanwhile, tests run on Eight Belles after her collapse showed no traces of “performance-enhancing” drugs in her bloodstream. Overall, there’s no hard evidence linking anabolic-steroid use with catastrophic injury in racehorses. According to C. Wayne McIlwraith, the past president of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the drugs might even help prevent injury by strengthening the tendons and ligaments. (They do have some side effects, including a sort of equine ‘roid rage: A juiced-up and angry stallion might be quicker to bite, strike, or kick, and will repeatedly defecate over the feces of another stallion.) So, why the rush to ban them all? “Perception is reality,” says McIlwraith. “If people perceive the drugs as harmful, then the horses shouldn’t get them.”

Horse-juicing isn’t unfair, and we have no proof that it’s harmful to the animals. The drugs are no less “natural” than baroque breeding schedules and surgical interventions. And we don’t have to worry about the social influence of drug-use among celebrity horses—no ponies are going to start shooting up because they saw Big Brown on television.

But horse racing should ban the practice anyway.

We may not have any studies linking anabolic steroids with catastrophic injuries, but the absence of evidence is not, as they say, the evidence of absence. At the very least, we know these drugs have significant side effects. And before doctors can safely prescribe them—to humans or horses—we’ll need more data from controlled clinical trials.

That doesn’t mean they should never be used. A baseball player who wants to juice up can weigh the potential risks and benefits of an experimental treatment. Is he willing to endure the acne, shrunken testicles, and other side effects of nandrolone in exchange for boosted statistics and a higher salary? Is the trade-off worth the possibility of more serious, long-term damage?

If horses could talk, they might make a similar calculation. Would Big Brown take Winstrol if it might help him win the Triple Crown and retire to the farm as a pampered, well-paid stud? But a horse can’t weigh those pros and cons, and he can’t give informed consent. Until we’re absolutely certain that anabolic steroids don’t cause injury, we shouldn’t be making that decision for them.

Of course you could make the same argument about the entire sport of horse racing. A football player knows he may be gravely injured—or even killed—in the course of competition; a Thoroughbred does not. In the United States, one or two horses die for every 1,000 races. No one asks the animals if it’s worth the risk.