The Kentucky Derby kicks off horse racing’s Triple Crown, followed two weeks later by The Preakness Stakes before wrapping up with The Belmont Stakes. Back in 1978, when Affirmed crossed the finish line at Belmont Park, it marked the third time in five years that a horse had won the Triple Crown in what many consider to be the Golden Age of horse racing. But what was once the Golden Age has been tarnished by scandals and accusations of cheating.
With the Triple Crown having been won last year for the first time in 37 years by American Pharoah, horse racing is celebrated once again and back in the spotlight for all of the right reasons. But in the shadow of American Pharoah’s triumph, there remain multiple scandals involving drugs that continue to expose the dark side of the sport.
The Churchill Downs PETA Probe
In 2014, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) accused a successful trainer at Churchill Downs of subjecting his horses to cruel and injurious treatments and administering drugs for nontherapeutic purposes. According to the report, nearly four dozen horses tested positive for unsafe levels of both permitted substances and banned substances, as well as prohibited amounts of painkillers, steroids, and anti-inflammatory drugs.
While the New York State Gaming Commission called most of the serious allegations made by PETA unfounded, the trainer, Steve Asmussen, was fined for administering synthetic thyroxine, a hormone made from the thyroid gland, without evidence of its medical necessity and within 48 hours of a race.
The Dangerous Economics of Horse Racing
In 2012, a New York Times investigation revealed how numerous trainers and veterinarians contributed to a pervasive drug culture in horse racing. According to the investigation, more than 3,800 horses tested positive for drugs from 2009 to 2011, most of them for illegal levels of prescription drugs. While horse racing banned steroids in 2010, another prescription drug, clenbuterol—which is approved to treat respiratory disease—can build muscle by mimicking anabolic steroids and act as a stimulant.
The Uniform Classifications Guidelines of the Association of Racing Commissioner’s International (RCI) lists clenbuterol as a Class 3 drug. Many Class 3 drugs affect the cardiovascular, pulmonary, and autonomic nervous systems and may or may not have an accepted therapeutic use in horses. All Class 3 drugs have the potential for affecting the performance of a racing horse.
According to the Times investigation, evidence of widespread abuse of clenbuterol surfaced in 2011 when more than half of the thoroughbreds and all of the 72 quarter horses tested by California authorities tested positive for the drug. Supplies of an illegal, super-potent form of clenbuterol, some of which was smuggled in from Mexico, began showing up at racetracks.
Clenbuterol’s manufacturer, Boehringer Ingelheim, says the drug “should be withdrawn” after 30 days. According to Kenneth H. McKeever, associate director of research at the Rutgers Equine Science Center, long term use of clenbuterol starts pushing a horse into the beginning stages of heart failure.
The Godophin Doping Scandal
Doping scandals in horse racing aren’t limited to the United States. In 2013, Team Godophin, one of the world’s most powerful horse racing teams with winners in 14 different countries, was involved in a huge doping scandal that involved injecting banned anabolic steroids into 11 champion horses over the course of more than a decade.
The trainer, Mahmood Al Zarooni, eventually admitted to doping 15 leading thoroughbreds with ethylestranol and stanozolol—both Class 3 drugs—and was banned for eight years by the British Horseracing Authority. While anabolic steroids are banned in British horse racing, they are still allowed out of competition in countries including Australia, Dubai, and the United States.
Phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory marketed under the name Butazolidan, is listed as a Class 4 drug by the RCI, with a limited ability to enhance performance. Today it’s one of the most commonly used drugs in horse racing, given to help alleviate chronic pain and joint inflammation. But in 1968, while the drug was legal at some tracks, Churchill Downs wasn’t one of them. Two days after Dancer’s Image finished first in the Kentucky Derby, a post-race urine sample taken from the winner came up positive for Butazolidan. Dancer's Image was disqualified and placed last. It was the only disqualification in the Derby's 133-year history.