Much of the pervasive drug use at the racetrack is officially condoned. Only New York, among all the nation's racing jurisdictions, forbids the use of bute or Lasix on horses while racing. Elsewhere, these medications are so routinely administered that the official program published at many tracks is required to list which horses are running with the aid of which medication.
In this atmosphere in which sanctioned drug use has become the norm, perhaps the most abused drugs of all are the corticosteroids, which kill pain by reducing inflammation in the joints (bute, by contrast, is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory). Serial injections can seriously weaken the soft tissue in the joints of an actively campaigning horse. Ferraro estimates that close to 70% of racehorses have, at some point in their careers, been "tapped," as these steroidal injections are called on the backstretch. "Pharmacologists will tell you that corticosteroids are not damaging to the joint if they're given with rest," he says. "But when you give them with exercise, when you give them and then compete, they are deleterious. The other thing about cortisone is that with multiple use, its good effects tend to decrease and its bad effects tend to increase. It's the multiple injections that really nail you. It's like diminishing returns—more is not better with cortisone."
New York trainer John Veitch agrees that economic conditions have forced horsemen to rely on such painkillers to keep unsound horses competing. As the backstretch economy has deteriorated, so have horses' joints. "Corticosteroids are very prominent," says Veitch. "I'm sure they have contributed to some of the catastrophic breakdowns that we've seen. The horse is compromised."
This is particularly so, says Ferraro, among the armies of cheaper horses who make up the bulk of the racing population. "Obviously, with the horse in the upper class, trainers and vets are using it sparingly," he says. "Those horses that are running every week for a ham sandwich, a lot of them get popped every time they go." A classic abuse of the drug, Ferraro says, occurs with the trainer of a cheap claimer suffering from an inflamed tendon. The trainer wants to get rid of the horse, but knows no one will claim him if he shows up in the paddock with the telltale bulge in his lower leg. So the trainer snuggles up to the vet, asking him to inject a tad of the elixir to reduce the swelling.
"So the cortisone gets injected," says Ferraro. "The guy puts the horse in the race, some other guy claims him, and the horse pulls up at the half-mile pole with a ruptured tendon. Perfect example of what goes on. Nobody's the wiser. Too many horses are being trained by veterinarians and not by trainers."
In the search for ways to prevent catastrophic injuries, nothing has buoyed the industry's scientists more than the mammoth, open-ended research project in California that has gathered revealing data from the autopsies performed on every horse that has died at the state's five thoroughbred tracks over the last four years (nearly 900 so far). The California Necropsy Project at the University of California, Davis, has involved an unlikely amalgam of politicos, professors, veterinarians and trainers looking for the causes of crippling injuries on the racetrack. Budgeted at $500,000 a year, with most of the money taken out of the state's simulcast handle, it represents the first concerted effort to probe the breakdown phenomenon.
Dr. Sue Stover, one of the researchers, has already made several findings involving "microfractures" in various types of bones in which it was thought such fractures did not occur. Microfractures, too small to be detected by the conventional X-rays that most track vets use, can lead to unexplained soreness in an animal and to breakdowns. "These microfractures can become a large fracture," Stover says. "I call it the postage stamp effect. Just as a stamp tears cleanly along the line of perforated holes, the larger fracture can occur along a line of microfractures." So breakdowns, she concluded, do not occur randomly in normal bone; they are ordinarily and tragically caused by horses taking the inexplicable "bad step." Veterinary scientists believe they are on to something significant.
In its efforts to diagnose microfractures and abnormal bone that would predispose a horse to a full-blown fracture, researchers at the Equine Sports Medicine Program at Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine have been using scintigraphy, a technique in which a horse is injected with a radioactive isotope that isolates skeletal "hot spots"—places where injured bone is rebuilding itself. Scintigraphy, which has been used for years in treating humans, reveals more accurately than any other diagnostic tool the precise location and extent of the abnormal activity. The technique has gained such acceptance that a machine has recently been installed at Santa Anita—the first such device ever installed at an American track—and trainers are just beginning to bring their horses by to get their hot spots read.
"I had a filly that was sore all over, and I had no idea what was going on," says trainer Richard Mandella, who has 32 horses at Santa Anita. "Scintigraphy found stress microfractures in the hind legs, and now I know what to do to help the horse get back into training. The machine finds the needle in the haystack."
It is in that kind of learning process that researchers like Howard Seeherman of Tufts see the best chance for heading off racetrack breakdowns. "We must conform the training process to the healing and remodeling processes of the bone," he says. "The industry must realize this. It is not enough to talk about the infamous bad step."