Past The Wire — June 30, 2014 — Weekly Column by Jonathan Stettin

Past The Wire

By Jonathan Stettin

To PE or not PE

It was quite an exciting week in the sport of kings once again, both on and off the track. We’ll discuss more about that a bit later on. First, I wanted to touch on and clarify some points about a serious issue in the game.

The terms PE or PED are frequently used in sports today and our game is no different – and we may actually be the leader of the pack. While there are no recognized statistics that can prove it, as a matter of fact, there is enough general information – combined with common sense and knowledge of human nature – that tells us the argument can at least be made.

To discuss this intelligently, and also objectively, one needs to have at least a basic knowledge of what PE and PED actually mean and the difference between them. PE simply means performance enhancing and can include most anything that achieves this result. Furthermore, not all things in that category are necessarily bad and some are, in fact, good. Feed, vitamins, supplements and a proper diet can all be PE factors, especially when those are not the norm or not what the horse has been accustomed to. So can proper veterinary care and the addressing of chronic horse ailments, which often go ignored.

Healthy teeth and gums, ulcers, breathing issues can all have negative impacts on a horse’s performance on the racetrack. So, correcting these issues with remedies which are beneficial for the animal is a positive and can also have a PE effect. Good trainers know all of this and much more, and do it routinely. Knowing those outfits from the ones that don’t, or the ones who use shortcuts, can be a very rewarding handicapping angle. You do not have to cheat to win and be a high percentage and successful outfit but you do have to know about and care about horses. This is especially true off a barn change or claim.

It was no secret that I was against California Chrome being allowed to wear his nasal strip in the Belmont Stakes. Yes, a nasal strip is a performance enhancing piece of equipment. And yes, it’s an item that I also think is harmless and very good for the horse. However, I was against it because I did not think it was fair to past participants of racing in New York, who were forced to race without them or even disqualified for wearing one. I also thought it was inappropriate to change the rules during an ongoing series to favor one horse over another. At the end of the day, I agree with horses being allowed to wear them in all jurisdictions.

When I wrote about this and indicated the nasal strip was in fact a PE device, I took my share of heat, to which I’ve become accustomed. Many people blasted me and stated that nasal strips were not PE’s and that they were ultimately inconsequential. Not correct. A recent study by the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine concluded that the nasal strip is not simply cosmetic but has both health and PE advantages for the horse. This is a good thing and if you’re a trainer and not using them, I ask why not? It certainly isn’t cost. A credit to trainers like Peter Walder and Doug O’Neil who have been using them as far back as I can remember.There are others and it is time for Brisnet, Equibase, Timeform US and the Daily Racing Form to start tracking and listing this information in past performances. This is something that would solely benefit the bettor, so let us not hold our collective breath.

The study, part of which was conducted on treadmills, went on to show that the strips tented the airways and held them open. They reduce bleeding, reduce secondary infections that damage the lung afterwards and help the horse perform better.  While the focus of the study was the positive health benefits of nasal strips, it also acknowledged that they can help a horse run faster and even longer by reducing fatigue.

When we talk PED’s we are now adding drugs into the equation. This includes legal, therapeutic, and unfortunately illegal drugs.  In the sport of kings we have been forced to address the use of things as bizarre as cobra venom and frog juice. We deal with thyroid medicine as a matter of routine in some barns and, until recently, dealt with steroids. Things like cobra venom and frog juice and even rhino horn cream shouldn’t warrant much discussion. Anyone who uses them illegally should be banned from the game, plain and simple. Participation is a privilege and not a given right.

A huge problem area is the use of legal and therapeutic drugs within the rules but stretching them to overuse. This overuse, and even abuse, includes using remedies but not for their intended purposes, using them not only when needed, and of course PE. This becomes a difficult thing to police and gets very subjective. The only solution I see that is safe and plausible is no race day medication. This has worked in other jurisdictions and that should go a long way that can work here in the US. In fact, it has worked in US racing in the past.

One of the most widely used and misused drugs is Lasix. There is no doubt that Lasix has indeed changed the game, to some extent.  To get a realistic handle on Lasix, and its impact on the game, one only has to look at the jurisdictions where it is not allowed on race days and the overall health, success and longevity of those horses. To put it in a closer-to-home home perspective, let’s look at New York racing – both before and after the legalization of race day Lasix. Back in the pre-Lasix era, New York racing was the benchmark for the entire country – Kentucky, Florida and California included. You pretty much could not win a championship without racing there. New York horses who actually needed Lasix were forced to ship to lesser circuits where it was legal to compete and thus became known as second stringers. Things were not broke yet. What we, as New York bettors, knew back then was that Lasix was PE. I made several trips across the bridge to New Jersey and The Meadowlands to cash nice price tickets on horses with poor New York form racing first time Lasix. Things became broken when, after the legalization of Lasix in New York, racing kind of morphed into a philosophy of “let’s give it to all horses whether they actually need it or not.” Veterinarians began scoping all horses regularly and if they found even a speck of what might be blood, the directive became to put the horse on Lasix. This still happens routinely.

Lasix prevents the proper hydration of the equine athlete, which is essential to a healthy and successful recovery after a competition. While it’s true that there are medical positives that can help a bleeder perform competitively, the longterm negatives outweigh the positives. The simple solution is if your horse cannot race successfully, safely and in a healthy manner without Lasix, get him right so that he or she can. Having almost the entire breed on a drug that many of them do not need – and primarily for the PE values – is polluting the entire bloodline. This passes down in foals and is part of why our horses race less often and do not have the longevity they used to. We discussed the Triple Crown winners who raced without it and were able to run in other races during the series. We can’t even fathom that today. The recovery Lasix prevents through dehydration cannot be made up long term or fixed with other drugs and the breed, as a whole, suffers because of it. Forego, John Henry, Secretariat, Tentam, Buckpasser, Damascus, Dr. Fager, and countless others ran with no Lasix in New York. The proof is there for those who care to see it.

I cannot say I was surprised when I heard Dale Romans got into it a bit on the Churchill Downs backside with Indian Charlie, aka Ed Mussleman recently. What I found surprising was that it took as long as it did. I have read Indian Charlie for years and, even as a satire, it has a tendency to go too far, taking cheap shots at people and it does so repeatedly. As we said back in Brooklyn, that’s a fight in my neighborhood. Even if true, which I have no idea about, you don’t write about someone the way Indian Charlie wrote about Dale – and as he’s written about some others – and not expect to be called out. Not to condone fighting at this stage of the game but this one was coming.

We also had a trainer go after a rider at the weigh in after a race. There is not much you can say about this conduct other than it should not be acceptable. I’ll leave that one there.

While all the attention seems to be on Gold Cup winner Majestic Harbor for his runaway score earning him an Grade 1 (and a “win and you’re in” to the Breeders’ Cup Classic), I didn’t think it was the performance of the day by a long shot. While a nice victory for sure, it looked way better than it actually was due to the suicide pace set by Fury Kapcori under Gary Stevens – who pretty much assured after a half-mile that a closer was going to win it. Mike Smith aboard favored Game on Dude kept the old guy as far off it as he could but that wasn’t nearly far enough. Majestic Harbor, a half to Arkansas Derby winner Danza, benefited the most and rolled home. He got the last quarter in :26 seconds and he’ll need to pick that up some to contend in the Classic. It’s not every day we see two of the smartest riders in the world set up a race that way but sometimes it’s just the way it unfolds.This takes nothing away from his victory which was pretty to watch. It also featured an excellent ride by Tyler Baze, who has been riding very well of late, and an excellent job by his trainer, Sean McCarthy, who had Majestic Harbor primed for his best on the big stage.

The performance that caught my eye was by DeClassify. This horse has been fast from day one. If he continues to stay right, and sound, he is fast and good enough to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. He’s obviously had his issues, necessitating some layoffs, and it took him a start this go around to be at his best. From a tough rail draw, he came again, running fast the whole way to capture the Triple Bend. He can motor.

We saw Untappable continue to dominate a bunch of 3-year-old fillies that she is better and faster than. That race also looked better than it was. A lot of races look visually impressive when the field is outclassed by a faster animal.

In addition to the excitement of the upcoming meets at Saratoga and Del Mar, we have some interesting columns coming up. In one, we will go inside a very special and classy barn and outfit that I expect to be around for a long time. In another, we’ll look at a bug boy rider going out there and making his dream a reality.

High Five:

Congratulations to Sean McCarthy on his first Grade 1 victory.

Irad Ortiz Jr. for showing what toughness and determination really is. Irad went down hard only to return the following day and go back to work riding as if nothing happened. RIP Roses for Romney.

Low Five:

Juan Vazquez. Can’t throw punches at the weigh in.

Horses to Watch:

DeClassify, BC Sprint material.

Jonathan Stettin is a profesional handicapper and contributor to DanonymousRacing.com. He currently resides in Florida. He has several large Pick-6 scores to his name, including one for $540,000+ on August 8, 1994, at Saratoga. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanstettin

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