NOEL KING, HOST:
This weekend is the last event of horse racing's Triple Crown. The Belmont Stakes is Saturday in New York. Usually, there's a lot of excitement over this event, but this year it's been clouded by the deaths of 26 horses at Santa Anita Park in Southern California; that's since December. And this whole thing has renewed a familiar debate - should race horses be medicated with a lot of drugs?
Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: On a sunny April day at Santa Anita, Kathy Guillermo looked out at the famed racetrack...
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GOLDMAN: ...As another group of sleek thoroughbreds burst from a starting gate. She was fully aware many who work there consider her the enemy.
KATHY GUILLERMO: I'm a senior vice president with PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
GOLDMAN: PETA is opposed to the sport, but Guillermo says it's not enough to just say end it. After 11 years of working to reform racing and the cluster of 26 horse deaths at Santa Anita, she says it's time to right the sport's wrongs, especially the issue of medication.
GUILLERMO: As a veterinarian I know once said, racehorse is not a diagnosis. And yet, that's the way these animals are treated.
GOLDMAN: Meaning what?
GUILLERMO: Meaning that just by virtue of being a thoroughbred on a racetrack, you are medicated.
GOLDMAN: There are 30 approved therapeutic medications, including sedatives, painkillers, muscle relaxants. Nearly all horses racing today take the two most popular substances - Lasix, to combat bleeding, and the anti-inflammatory Phenylbutazone, or bute. There's no evidence medications were a factor in the spike in fatalities at Santa Anita. Investigations haven't finished yet. Many blame the injuries on bad weather affecting track conditions.
There is documentation, though, that what Kathy Guillermo calls today's chemical horse had its origins hundreds of years ago. Mary Simon is a racing historian.
MARY SIMON: Charles II had someone write a treatise on medications used to benefit race horses.
GOLDMAN: Certainly not all were beneficial over the years. The publication BloodHorse chronicled the use of stimulants, cocaine, even heroin. Then, in 1968, a reminder that race horses were not just running on water, hay and oats.
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JACK DREES: But it is Dancer's Image that wins it by two lengths.
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UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Dancer's Image was first under the wire, but tests indicated that he had been given an illegal medication.
GOLDMAN: Dancer's Image was disqualified as the Kentucky Derby winner. Since then, that medication and many others have become legal, including Lasix. It's become the single most controversial medication in racing. It's used on race day in the U.S. and Canada to control horses' bleeding in the lungs. As a diuretic, it causes them to lose lots of fluid weight, and they race lighter. That's led to charges that it's a performance enhancer.
Longtime thoroughbred owner John Ed Anthony has been one of the few to resist using Lasix with his younger horses.
JOHN ED ANTHONY: That puts us at a distinct disadvantage, no doubt.
GOLDMAN: It didn't use to. Anthony's horses won Triple Crown races in 1980, '92, '93 - all without Lasix. Even though he's at a disadvantage now, Anthony stands by his decision.
ANTHONY: For the long-term benefit of the horse, we're better off with a healthy developed horse without having had its fluids drained consistently than we are otherwise.
GOLDMAN: While the 80-year-old Anthony has watched medication use grow during his long career, Dale Romans has never known anything else. Romans is one of the country's top thoroughbred trainers. He's based at legendary Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Romans says Lasix makes sense.
DALE ROMANS: If we have something that we can use that's a $20 medication that people take on a daily basis and it's proven effective, then why shouldn't we use it?
GOLDMAN: Beyond race day Lasix, Romans bristles at the notion of a chemical horse pumped full of different meds that potentially mask injuries. He says the amounts given to most thoroughbreds are quite small and monitored by strict drug testing.
ROMAS: But look at this horse. How much happier could an animal be?
GOLDMAN: Romans says more people should tour his barns, like this, and see how well his thoroughbreds are treated. He knows the Santa Anita deaths, tied to medication or not, have turned public opinion against racing. And that opinion can be powerful. In the early 1900s, moral outrage about gambling and corruption in the sport led to the shutdown of tracks across the country. The question now - where will the public's concern about dying horses lead?
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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