angle-left VanBebber Blog: Race-Day Medications

VanBebber Blog: Race-Day Medications

I am concerned about a race-day medication ban, and you should be, too.
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By AQHA Chief Racing Officer Janet VanBebber

A lot of columns in various periodicals have been devoted to the topic of safety and integrity in horse racing since the Stronach Group press release was issued last Thursday. In case you’re not familiar with the situation in Southern California, the owner of Santa Anita Park, a prominent Thoroughbred racetrack, addressed its ongoing issue regarding the catastrophic loss of 22 horses, with an opportunity to further a political agenda regarding their desire to ban all race-day medications. I am a lifetime horseman who now fulfills the role of chief racing officer of the largest equine breed registry in the world, and I am concerned. Here’s why you should be, too.

Since joining the American Quarter Horse Association in this capacity three years ago, I have never tried to assert my voice over what our Thoroughbred counterparts do. However, I stand firm in my resolve to protect what our Quarter Horse industry needs and to guard the welfare of our athletes. 

In 2018, the Stronach Group came out in support of federal legislation that, among other things, seeks to ban race-day medication, including furosemide, or Lasix, as most people refer to it. We at AQHA have a long list of reasons to be concerned about federal overreach in our sport, especially in the realm of drug testing, in light of the intended prohibitions referenced above. We strongly maintain that taking Lasix away from our sprinting athletes would, indeed, create an animal welfare issue.

The Stronach press release has successfully diverted the scrutiny surrounding the alarming rate of recent breakdowns to a completely separate issue. We are no longer talking about the deaths of horses; now we’re talking about something entirely different that maybe should not be caught up in this agenda. 

To briefly revisit the issue of the breakdowns: Yes, how we manage horses through soundness issues does have a medication component, which needs to have strict guidelines and accountability. The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and the Association of Racing Commissioners International work tirelessly in these areas with people who are specialized in the field, and AQHA is very involved in working with these organizations to improve their Quarter Horse rules.  

Several of the racetrack’s breakdowns were during morning works. How would a ban on race-day medications help them? As a horseman, my eyes turn toward the racing surface and the impact of the weather. I’ll share a little of my personal experience:

In 2001, when I took the reins of VanBebber Racing Stable, I knew that my late husband was a stickler for training. He would allow for horses to gallop at our training center, even when the track was wet from recent rains. Allowing such a practice can cause the base – the hard bottom that is under the cushion, or soft sandy surface that a horse gallops on – to be compromised. Think of that compromise like a pothole. If you train on a wet surface, you have a greater chance of creating “potholes” underneath, and when a horse gallops over such a spot – well, one wrong step can be detrimental to his well-being. As soon as my success afforded me the financial ability, I renovated my training track and created a new base so that I could be assured that my horses were training on the best surface possible. Although my training track was small, and this dates back nearly 20 years ago, I spent in excess of $25,000 on that project. 

With my reference in mind, can you imagine how tough it has been to manage Santa Anita? Thoroughbreds gallop almost every day. Even with the 11 inches of rain the track received, I bet they were still making plenty of left-hand turns galloping over the track. Track guru Dennis Moore is the industry’s best at maintaining a track’s integrity, but he was no longer working at Santa Anita when these events began unfolding. I suspect that track ownership realized his value, because the owner group did eventually call him back in as a consultant. But by then, the crisis had reached its peak and the damage was already done.

So, enough said. I am saddened for Santa Anita, the horses that have lost their lives and the horsemen who are dealing with such catastrophic events. My only hope for them is that they get the problems resolved and can move forward offering a safe environment for horses and riders. 

In the meantime, let’s recognize last week’s press release for what it is: A concentrated exercise in deflecting a media crisis by promoting a political agenda. AQHA stands strong in its resolve to oppose that agenda, and protect the American Quarter Horse.

Regarding AQHA’s stand on Lasix, the Association is joined by the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Agency, American Association of Equine Practitioners, North American Association of Racetrack Veterinarians, and Jockey’s Guild. Pretty good company to be in. I welcome you to stay alert and join us whenever we need your support to lobby against the latest Horseracing Integrity Act introduced by United States Reps. Paul Tonko and Andy Barr on March 14, 2019.

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