Times change, but not always

November 13, 2001 7:47 AM
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Trying to fill in for my boss, Chuck Di Rocco, the regular inhabitant of this corner, is a mighty task, indeed. But since he felt “yuckie” because of a minor medical condition, he deputized me as this week’s substitute.

With no particular subject in mind, I began perusing recent stories affecting the thoroughbred racing industry, a subject that has been dear to my heart since I was a teenager working as a hotwalker on the backstretch of Rockingham Park and general gopher for the stable of “Old Rob” McKeever and his son, Joe.

My how things have changed since then.

We had about two dozen head in our combined stable with not one of them ready to challenge for the top spot at the summer race meet. Across from our barn was a modest stable that had an ace within its ranks. His name was West Fleet, a champion sprinter.

The memories came back after I read of the problems suffered by scores of Kentucky broodmares who aborted their fetuses earlier this year and caused a flurry among veterinarians who just couldn’t come up with a diagnosis that identified the cause.

During that long ago summer at the Rock, we encountered a similar problem when a number of horses became ill suddenly and seemingly without obvious cause. Horses of both sexes and of all racing ages were afflicted. Track management immediately set up an isolation area where the sick animals were quarantined.

Still, more and more horses became infected. To ease the financial burden of the horse owners, the horsemen’s association and track management set up a fund offering $2,000 for each horse that was euthanized. That’s what Trainer A.R. Mann received for West Fleet, a horse worth at least $100,000, which was a lot of money in those days. Finally, veterinary probes determined the cause of the sickness as equine infectious anemia or what was then called “Swamp Fever.”

The crisis finally ended just as the crisis on Kentucky breeding farms ended earlier this year. But, not before an epidemic panicked the entire industry. Two separate incidents that took place more than a half-century apart but had similar results.

Things change”¦but do they really?

What about the recent news stories out of California reporting that attempted race fixing had taken place by some nefarious doers who had implanted small sponges in the noses of the horses they wanted to slow down?

Again, nothing new. Sponges were used to fix races in the ’40s. I remember a horse named Crisis from the stable of Harry Barnett, a New York gambler, turned trainer, who ran badly, confusing his conditioner who had bet heavily on his chances. A few days later, the horse’ groom found a sponge in the horse’s feed bin. This obviously triggered an investigation that ultimately cracked the ring that was responsible. It was determined that the results of a number of other races were also altered by the use of sponges.

In California, they still haven’t found the culprits.

And then, there is the drugging problem that many suggest has been exasberbated by the liberal use of what has been described as therapetic raceday medication. Tops among these, of course, is the widespread use of Lasix, the diuretic allegedly used to prevent horses from bleeding during the running of the races. A side effect, however, is the possible masking of other drugs, if they had been administered.

Throughout the 20th century, and now into the 21st century, some horsemen had tried to get an advantage by using some from performance enhancing drug. Some successful, some not. But, without question, they will keep trying as long as new drugs are developed.

Probably the most famous case of “drugging” involved Peter Fuller’s Kentucky Derby winner, Dancer’s Image. Never, before or since, has a Derby winner been disqualified for illegal drugs. In fact, word out of Kentucky was that, at least until Dancer’s Image’s Derby in 1968, officials never even tested for drugs.

But that was when the word “Bute” became part of everybody’s vocabulary. Although nearly every racing jurisdiction now permits butazoladin, at that time it was generally unknown, except to veterinarians. Dancer’s Image’s vet was the well-known Dr. Alex Harthill who denied prescribing or giving the horse “Bute” even though the runner was known to have sore ankles.

That certain unknown factor in chemistry is usually what excites those who hope to put something over in a race.

Just last week, Trainer Tammi Piermarini was suspended at Suffolk Downs when one of her horses, who won by 15 lengths, was found to have benzylpiperazine in his system. It was detected in a urine sample. The trainer’s husband said he bought the drug from a Canadian company over the Internet. He said the drug was described as a bronchodilator and he thought it would clear the horse’s system within 48 hours.

Following the initial hearing, it was learned that four other horses from the trainer’s stable had tested positive and that she had just completed a 30-day suspension imposed at a previous race meeting when one of her horse’s had been found to have the illegal anti-inflammation medication Banamine in his system.

Yes, it seems that as time goes by, things change.

But, do they really?