Jockeys just aren't smart," snaps a prominent trainer at Baltimore's Pimlico racetrack. "Don't pay any attention to them. The proof is when you call the White House, no guy 4'8" tall answers the phone." While this derisive observation is obviously illogical, incongruous and indefensible, it is accurate evidence of how edgy the people in racing are these days as they confront what has become the sport's most explosive issue—Bute.
Butazolidin is the brand name for the drug phenylbutazone, a medication that can reduce swelling and inflammation, which in turn eases pain. It's the most widely used drug in the horse racing industry, yet, on the heels of a series of recent accidents, its very mention generates emotional sparks. And jockeys—including Rudy Turcotte, who broke his collarbone in a horrendous four-horse spill at Pimlico earlier this month that killed one rider. Robert Pineda—are questioning its use. Jorge Velasquez, one of the nation's top jockeys, says, "In my opinion, these places that use Bute are really not in control of it." And Steve Cauthen says, "The thing I don't like about Bute is the horse tries to overextend himself. The horse is better when he knows how he feels."
Indeed, a big knock on Bute—albeit a much refuted one—is that it does make a horse feel better than it really is, thus making it possible for the animal to put too much pressure on a bad ankle or knee. The newest question raised about Bute is whether the drug adversely affects healing of an injury, and whether bone density is subsequently weakened. This question arises because of a feeling that serious breakdowns are increasing, that instead of horses coming back lame after a race, too many are snapping their legs and going down during it. Studies are under way. If the theory proves correct, Bute is in big trouble. In 19 of 22 states where there is major thoroughbred racing, Bute is legal. Only New York, New Jersey and Arkansas prohibit horses from racing on it. At this Saturday's Preakness in Baltimore, some of the horses likely will be on Bute.
But the jocks have plenty of opposition. Gene Bierhaus, chief vet of the Colorado Racing Commission says, "I really hate to see jockeys evaluate scientific questions." Maryland veterinarian Jim Stewart suggests, "When people are killed in cars, it's not because of the gasoline." And Chick Lang, Pimlico's general manager, says, "About the only way a jockey can get killed by Butazolidin is for a box of it to fall on his head. But if I'm wrong and it's being abused, then let's find out and do something about it."
In the wake of Pineda's death, and as a result of injuries suffered by jockeys in several other falls this year, plenty of people besides the riders are condemning—or defending—the drug. One of them is James P. Mills, owner of the fine 3-year-old Believe It. He is anti-Bute and thinks that pressure from the jockeys is the "best hope" for doing away with it.
Whatever people say, Bute is not a painkiller like Demerol, morphine and novocain. "If you think it is," says Pennsylvania veterinarian Kenneth P. Seeber, "next time you go to the dentist and he's going to drill, tell him to give you Bute instead of novocain." Still, Bute is the code word for those who want to attack the use of drugs in racing. Ever since Dancer's Image won the Kentucky Derby in 1968, then was disqualifed because Bute was found in his system, use of the drug has stirred highly publicized controversy.
Three recent accidents have intensified the controversy. At Hollywood Park last month, jockeys Angel Cordero Jr. and Raul Ramirez were hurt when Cordero's mount, Firdabee, went down. In California, information about the use of Bute is not available to the public. Yet, reluctance to talk (Firdabee's trainer, Tommy Doyle, says, "It's nobody's business") indicates Firdabee may, indeed, have been on the drug. Then, in February at Bowie, Md., rider John Adams was crushed when his horse, Po Sho, broke her leg and went down. Adams was unconscious for 21 days, and semiconscious 14 more. "Bute makes 'em try too hard," says Adams, who is recuperating at his Bowie home. "They had to use Bute to get Po Sho to the track. She couldn't have raced without it." Trainer David Sipe says that's not true, although he admits Po Sho was running with a bone chip in her ankle.
Then on May 3, Pineda was killed. The accident started when Turcotte's horse, Easy Edith, was going for the lead. She snapped a leg, and Pineda's horse, right behind, flipped over her and fell. Later, Turcotte submitted to a hospital room interview in which he was quoted as blaming Bute for causing the breakdown. He also equated Bute with novocain. Now Turcotte is backing off, declining to say that Bute put Easy Edith down (she had inflamed knees, says her trainer, Tom Caviness, but nothing serious). "I just don't know," Turcotte says, "but in a lot of these spills, Bute has a lot to do with it." Turcotte also says he regrets his reference to novocain, which he admits was incorrect and a poor example. Says Turcotte, "I was under a painkiller myself. I was just trying to explain what Bute was to this reporter who didn't know anything." Turcotte, pain clearly etched in his face, dropped by Adams' house the other evening, and admitted that all the events—the race, the accident, the death, the interview—came too fast. "It's like somebody points a gun at you," he said. "You don't have time to think what you're gonna do after the bullet has gone through your head."
Racing people, especially those who are pro Bute, feel a bullet has gone through their heads, shot from the mouths of Adams and Turcotte. Trainers in particular think that jockeys should be seen riding and not heard talking. One of Pimlico's leading trainers, Buddy Delp, says, "These jocks are way off base. They don't know enough about Bute to know what they're talking about." In fact, last week two members of Pimlico's management privately discredited Turcotte and Adams.
Last year the National Association of Racing Commissioners asked a committee of chemists and vets to look at Bute and to investigate causes of breakdowns. The panel came up with many reasons (excessive racing, poor tracks, poor conformation, bad training) but concluded, "Controlled medication per se is not considered to be a significant factor." Colorado, the first state to legalize Bute, has not experienced an increase in breakdowns. Neither has California.