June 10, 2008, 8:02 am
About Those Steroids and Big Brown
By SID GUSTAFSON
Lack of steroids did not appear to be the reason Big Brown tanked the Belmont. I went over the reasons I thought were significant in my last article. Big Brown is a stallion. Horses are seasonal breeders. Anabolic steroids are naturally occurring. As days lengthen the endogenous anabolic steroids, those produced internally by intact male horses, are increasingly secreted into their bloodstream.
The days have lengthened considerably since April. Whatever Winstrol was excreted or metabolized by Big Brown before the Belmont Stakes had by and large been replaced by race time with his increased secretion of seasonal anabolic steroids. By this time of year most stallions have established higher levels of androgenic steroids in their bloodstreams by secreting their own endogenous hormones in response to the lengthening days.
Although steroids can improve performance in horses, steroid administration in itself does not assure enhanced performance. Generally speaking, horses are adequately big, strong, and fast enough. Steroid administration is not always a beneficial thing, especially over the long run. There are adverse reactions and side effects aplenty. When the dosage is excessive, or sometimes even with small dosages, difficult behavioral issues often arise. The biggest problem is that horses become hard to manage and handle. They act rank. With horses control is essential to safety and performance. It seemed Big Brown was plenty frisky as he broke out of the gate for the Belmont. Behaviorally and physically, there appeared to be little appearance of a lack of steroids in the big horse’s system.
Since steroids can indeed at times improve performance for some horses, they should be banned. There is little doubt that life will be healthier and safer for racehorses when steroid use is restricted. Artificially enhanced performance means that some medicated horses will exert themselves more than they might without steroids, putting added stress on their legs and muscles, leading to more injuries than would be the case without the added juice. Additionally, there are significant deleterious side effects due to the injudicious use of anabolic steroids: subsequent sterility, cancer, heart disease, unhandleabilty, psychological confusion, and other troubles.
Are there justified medical uses for anabolic steroids in racehorses? Yes, but justified medical use does not include enhancement of performance beyond what would normally be a horse’s inherent ability. What then are anabolic steroids used to appropriately treat? Anabolic steroids are given to help horses recover from certain medical conditions involving weight loss, reduced appetite, and loss of muscle mass. There are also valid medical uses for anabolic steroids to help horses recover more quickly and heal stronger after undergoing arduous surgical procedures, prolonged stress, and racing and training injuries. Anabolic (building up the protein) steroids induce metabolic protein retention, resulting in the incorporation of additional protein into the muscular and other structural tissues, bulking up the horses and athletes on the stuff.
Any other uses? Well, yes. Horses that are given significant amounts of catabolic steroids may need anabolic steroids to allay the protein loss the catabolic steroids induce. Catabolic steroids or cortisone (those steroids that break down protein and cause it to be excreted) are often administered to race horses to reduce joint, bone, tendon, ligament, and muscle inflammation, as well as to treat a plethora of other medical, immune, and metabolic conditions (pulmonary disease, hypoglycemia, tying-up, allergies, and many other medical issues).
Joints are injected with cortisone, and cortisone is also given systemically (intravenously, intramuscularly) to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Anabolic steroids compensate for the deleterious side effects of cortisone injections. If the use of catabolic steroids is limited, this will eliminate the medical indication to use anabolic steroids to compensate. If the industry is going to move forward in the best interests of race horses, they should significantly limit the use of cortisone as well. This will level out the drug-playing field, and bring our medical racehorse morals up to the standard of the rest of the civilized world.
Are there other examples of where one drug needs another follow-up drug to compensate for the side effects of the original drug? Yes. Phenylbutazone (bute), in addition to its vaunted non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory effect, thins the blood, increases the clotting time, and can increase the potential for bleeding into the lungs during racing (exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, EIPH). If we ban the bute, the horses hopefully won’t bleed as much, and we can then reduce the need for Lasix.
Without bute and other NSAIDs in the horse’s system, the racehorse will be less likely to bleed. Both anabolic and catabolic steroids cause fluid retention, which also increases the possibilities to bleed with the increased blood volume. Lasix, a diuretic and lung-blood-pressure reducer, is used to eliminate this excess fluid.
The horse racing industry could begin to restrict the original allowed drugs bute and cortisone, thus reducing the need for Lasix, anabolic steroids, antibiotics (steroids impair immunity) and other drugs which tend to be needed to mitigate the side effects of the original drugs.
The preference of many is that race horses should run clean. Drug-free racing is safer. It favors sound horses. Fewer drugs, then, allow horses to race sounder and longer, and drug-free racing might protect the horseplayers a bit. If horses are treated with the drugs veterinarians determine they need to be treated with, then the patients should not be allowed to race until the resultant therapeutic drug levels have subsided to insignificant levels.
Will this no-drug policy then push trainers to use drugs that cannot be detected? Yes again, but then attempts to gain advantage with drugs have always been problematic in horseracing. Legalizing the use of bute and Lasix drugs did not curtail this activity, it simply enhanced it. Allowable drugs “clouded” the tests, hiding other drugs. Lasix diluted illicit drugs in the urine, making them harder to detect.
The 35-year-old raceday-drug horseracing experiment has failed, or is failing. Too many fractures. Too many wrecks. Too many injured jocks. Too many down, dead horses. It is time to start running American racehorses clean like horsemen do in the rest of the world. The cleaner, the better. Racing jurisdictions gave veterinarians and trainers the go-ahead to use drugs liberally in the 70s. And, as is apt to happen with drugs, some individuals abused the dosages and administration of those drugs. They topped allowable drugs off with more drugs, and in doing so did their horses and patients and the thoroughbred industry a significant disfavor.
The ethical rule of equine veterinary medicine is this: First, do no harm. When drugs are implicated with harm, then it is time to re-evaluate their use. The argument that legal drugs somehow help horse racing is getting weaker and weaker. Legal drugs engender the use of more drugs. Some drugs may have their place in racing horses, but we need more evidence to overcome the contradictory evidence that drug use is diminishing the public’s confidence in horseracing.
We’ll never forget those images of Eight Belles trying to rise on two broken legs. None of those who witnessed that misfortune will, not even Big Brown. But that image will fade and be less-likely to be repeated if we all get together to make racing a more reasonable sport for the horses’ sake, for everyone’s sake. It is a good feeling to win a horse race with a thoroughbred, but the ultimate good feeling in horseracing comes when a horse runs clean, wins, and returns to the barn fit and sound. Let’s get that feeling going, now.
Sid Gustafson is a novelist, social commentator, and former thoroughbred attending and examining veterinarian licensed in New York, Washington, and Montana, where he has had significant experience in the regulation of racehorses, especially as it pertains to soundness and breakdowns.