MEDICATIONS AT THE RACETRACK
THE INFORMED OWNER
These opinions are very personal and are approached cautiously. Experience has taught me that most owners have no idea of exactly how their horse is being trained. They are often intimidated by the backside environment and terminology, a very dangerous and costly position.
This Section describes the purchase of a horse and the typical training routine at the racetrack. When your horse goes to the track, what I describe may or may not happen to your horse.
If your horse was purchased at a two-year-old-in-training sale, he was "cautiously" trained to breeze two furlongs. Many farms break their horses at 18 months and teach them to walk, trot, slow gallop and do figure eights. Depending on the date of the sale, the horse will be turned back out or begin his training, galloping every day or so. If his training begins, he will usually gallop no more than a mile and will be kept in a stall.
Think of what it might do physiologically to a young animal, with green unformed bone, when he is confined in a 12' x 12' stall for as much as twenty-three and a half hours a day. Is this a natural way to raise an athlete?
If your horse came from a farm where he was turned out most of the time during early training, he has a big advantage over the typical racehorse. When you drive through farm country, you see rolling hills with mares and foals grazing in pastures. Unfortunately, once horses go into training or sales preparation, many are stalled. Sales people don't want the horse to get any scratches or injuries that might make him look less attractive in the sale ring. They believe there is risk of injury if the horse is allowed to frolic and zoom around the pasture. Farm managers feel an obligation to protect the animals from such "dangers."
Short-term the horse is coddled and protected. Long-term, he is not learning to be comfortable with other animals. He is missing the natural exercise and growth necessary to be a resilient racehorse.
On large farms, when breaking yearlings and two-year-olds, long-term tranquilizing drugs are sometimes used to make them docile. The breaking process is easier and less time consuming. Many believe this is the only way to break and train fractious Thoroughbreds. I am not comfortable with this idea. The well adjusted, well trained horse will cope better with the racing environment if he has been allowed to develop and learn normally.
A day or two before the sale when these horses are asked to breeze for the first time, usually at the sale site, they will be pushed to get a good timed work. This is when many buck their shins. If the horse you want has bucked shins, buy him, but allow him time to rebuild, grow, and develop. It is too early to ask him to run fast, especially with so little foundation. Don't let him go directly to the racetrack. (See the sections on two-year-olds, and bucked shins.)
Most horses bought at two-year-old in-training sales are sent directly to the track. They are confined in their stalls, only let out once a day to learn to gallop on the real track. Galloping on the real track allows speed that could never be attained on your farm, speed that is unnecessary, in fact harmful, so early. Since they are not allowed to move naturally, this kind of training starts making them sore. They are only getting a mile or two a day, but they get it every day. Because they are running intensely on the track surface everyday, with virtually no real warm -up or cool-down, the soreness compounds. These sore horses are given medication to allow them to continue training. Usually it is Bute every night.
No two-year-old should be medicated for that kind of soreness. It is much better to rest him and observe the soreness. When it disappears, continue his training. If asked to run without the needed rebuild-time, rest, and gentle movement required to adjust to their work load, these undamaged horses will become damaged.
At the track as the animal becomes more muscularly fit, he is able to go faster. This may be when bone chips start to appear. Then you have green bone, with chips, running on a hard surface. Sometimes the trainer will X-ray and allow the horse to continue training, if he feels the chip won't interfere with the speed. In this case, the horse can only continue with the help of painkillers, corticosteroids and wraps. So, the trainer wraps, gives support therapy, and continues training until the horse is injured. Any two-year-old that needs supportive medication and leg wraps is being over-trained.
The usual training will continue to be one or two miles daily, interspersed with a day or so of walking around the shedrow or on the hotwalker. As a new owner, I vividly recall going to the racetrack for the first time. I saw this type of training and asked if this was all they did. I actually said, "15 to 45 minutes out of the stall and you charge $35 a day. No afternoon exercise?"
Some trainers, sensitive to their animals, see the problems coming and allow turn-out time back at the farm. Others capitulate, pressured by the owner who wants his horse running until he wins or breaks down.
The breakdown inevitably comes when the vet tries to "help" the horse continue training. He has to tell the trainer that there are medications that will enable the horse to continue running short term, but that they will be damaging long term. Corticosteroids in the joints alleviate symptoms. In conventional training even when the horse is sore, training continues. The horse runs unaware of the damage he is doing to himself, because he feels no pain.
As owners, you should know how to read the vet bills you receive from the track. They may tell you more about how your horse is doing than your weekly talks with the trainer, If you see X-rays on the bill, Red alert! Immediately ask why they were taken . If your trainer says, "Well, he was a little lame" or "There is some heat in..." a particular area, tell him to stop the horse until physical signs are gone.
Often the X-ray shows nothing, and the trainer continues training. He may not realize that some kinds of damage don't show up in an X-ray until it is too late. By continuing his training program, he compounds the damage.
Once a filly was sent to me from the track who supposedly had bucked shins. They had continued training her and she had won a race, but the trainer told the owner that she just didn't want to be a racehorse. When I looked at the horse, she had very rough looking shins. I had her X-rayed before we went home.
When we got home, I noticed that she didn't want to go into her left lead and that she was slightly lame. Later, the vet called with the results of her X-rays. She showed a very clear crack on her cannon in the vicinity of the rough shin. Previous X-rays had not shown the crack, though the horse certainly had physical signs of problems more serious than bucked shins. The lesson here is never ignore your own observations. X-rays and tests only help with diagnosis.
This filly was in training, lame and even won a race. Because the X-rays didn't show a break, she was pushed until damage could be seen. Had she been stopped a few days, when the shin problem started and allowed to heal, she may not have needed six to nine months of rest to heal a fracture. The fact is that there must have been some physical sign in her leg to trigger this X-ray. Until a physical sign disappears, whether the X-ray shows a problem or not, the horse should be turned out and rested. If the horse needs pain relief while he recuperates, by all means keep him comfortable. Do not resume his training program until the medication has been suspended and the horse has no further physical signs. Please be observant with your animals. This program is designed to teach you how to recognize problems.
The background on what might happen at the track should help you to understand that keeping the horse out and loose most of the time in his formative growth period, will allow him to withstand the track pounding. Many breakdowns in young horses could be avoided with a variation in the training regime.
The series of events that lead to the breakdown can sometimes be charted by reading between the lines of vet bills. Some vet bills from a leading trainer are included. They were received by a friend, when her horse was under the trainer's care at a major racetrack. The filly ran in stakes and was a fairly decent allowance horse. She was sent to this trainer by another trainer who told the owner the mare was fine except for a windpuff on her left front.
We will walk through this bill and pretend we are "Columbo". Let's see if we can reconstruct the scenario of the final breakdown of this filly.