July 13, 2012 – Lexington, KY – Earlier this week, the horse racing industry encountered further criticism when an article by the New York Times (found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/11/sports/ill-have-another-had-history-of-ailments-records-show.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss) alleged that drastic treatments were being given to Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another leading up to this year’s Belmont Stakes. The colt was withdrawn from the Belmont, ending his bid for the Triple Crown, when trainer Doug O’Neill reported he began experiencing tendonitis, or tendon swelling, in his left front leg.
The Times alleges that “powerful painkillers” were given to the horse, and that x-rays taken of the colt’s joints prior to his withdrawal indicate a much more severe problem. The author also alleges that the practice of running horses with high doses of drugs to overcome painful injuries is common practice in Thoroughbred racing.
As a member of the Jockey Club, and past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, renowned Thoroughbred health expert Dr. Larry Bramlage gave an interview to NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams in an attempt to more accurately inform the public about health and safety practices in racing. That video can be found here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/48155033#48155033. As the AAEP’s on-call veterinarian for Triple Crown races and chief orthopedic surgeon at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, Dr. Bramlage became concerned following the release of that segment that the public did not have all the facts regarding the issues presented by the Times and NBC.
“In my opinion, The New York Times piece published on July 11 titled ‘I’ll Have Another had history of ailments, records show’ was closer to tabloid journalism than in-depth reporting, as was the selective editing demonstrated on the July 11 edition of NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams.
In reality, statistics given by the Times that 24 horses break down each week on American racetracks was calculated based on a number of questionable assumptions including, the inclusion of “eased” designations and equine ambulance pick-ups after a race as indications of injury, a procedure that is often, in fact, precautionary. Our increased awareness of equine injuries has increased the number of times that we help the horse off the track, but those are not necessarily indications that the horse has had a serious problem. In fact, statistics indicate the number of Thoroughbred injuries has trended downward with the increased caution The misinterpretation of the medical terminology ‘osteoarthritis’, and the substitution of ‘major painkillers’ for anti-inflammatory medications is unfair to the uninformed general public. It’s useful only to sell newspapers, not to allow the public to understand what actually happened for the horse. The phenylbutazone given to I’ll Have Another is from the same drug group as aspirin and ibuprofen in humans, can’t be given to a horse within 24 hours of a race, and is tested for with blood and urine samples at all levels of the sport. Dexamethasone is a corticosteroid used as an anti-inflammatory as well.
There have been 11 horses that have won two of the three legs of the Triple Crown in the last 33 years. I would guess that almost all of those horses had x-rays after winning the second leg as a monitoring, precautionary measure. That’s routine veterinary care, and would be akin to the kind of examinations that human Olympic athletes who just qualified in the U.S. championships will undergo prior to competing in the Olympics at the end of July.
While veterinary ethics preclude us from speculating on I’ll Have Another’s case specifically as we were not the attending veterinarian, the records provided to New York State Racing and Wagering Board do not indicate anything inappropriate. No illegal, unprofessional, or medically unwarranted medication was given to this horse. We totally agree with the approach that Dr. Jim Hunt, attending veterinarian, took to get this horse ready for a possible Triple Crown run.”