Hall of Famer speaks out on racehorse drugs

Michael Dickinson
Michael Dickinson

Hall of Fame racehorse trainer Michael Dickinson says most trainers should have no problem taking their horses off drugs and going “cold turkey”.

Speaking in support of the “Water Hay Oats Alliance” (WHOA), which supports the passage federal legislation to prohibit the use of performance-enhancing drugs in US racing, Dickinson said he had been on both sides of the issue.

“I have trained in the UK on zero medication. I’ve also trained in the USA using the permitted medications. The job satisfaction of the former easily outweighs the latter. In the USA I raced all my horses on Lasix and used some of the other permitted medication, but I have had my “Road to Damascus” moment,” the champion steeplechase jockey and trainer said.

“It is disappointing that the debates always revolve around Lasix when it is the vast amount of painkillers given the week of the race that are far more dangerous. The stacking of anti-inflammatories for five days leading up to the race is only one paralysed jockey away from a gigantic lawsuit.”

British-born Dickinson said in the past several years he had visited 10 of the best thoroughbred racing countries in the world, where the question is always the same: “When is the USA going to ditch its permissive medication policies?”

“The rest of the world can run excellent racing without medication and they can’t understand why the USA can’t do likewise. They are disappointed that we can’t do what the rest of the world can do and the ability of our horses and the skill of our trainers has become needlessly questioned. Some people are addicted to the culture of permissive medication and the leaders of the industry don’t have the appetite to change. The outsiders feel that it is hurting our product. The public doesn’t like drugs. We have the best horses in the world. Let them race without drugs and remove all doubt.”

He said there were 26 permitted drugs that were allowed in US racing, and many of the younger trainers in the industry had not worked without them, and were “scared to go cold turkey”.

But he said he thought that most good horsemen would have no problem adjusting. “Maybe a small percentage will struggle, then so be it. Actually the 26 controlled therapeutics do not require anyone to go ‘cold turkey’. The intent is to provide guidance on their use such that they can be used to address equine health disorders, but withdrawn prior to a race in such a way that they cannot impact the horse’s performance.”

Dickinson felt change in American racing would need to be brought on by breeders. He said there were fewer international buyers coming to the USA “and the problem is only going to get worse”.

“Since 2007, yearlings sold for more than $100,000 or more are up 12% in Britain and Ireland but down 22% in the USA. France and Hong Kong are leading the way for all graded stakes to be run medication free.  If this continues, it will devalue the American Thoroughbred,” he said.

“The injury rate overseas is far less than the USA. If we are saying we need a shedload of drugs because our races and conditions are so severe, then maybe horseracing does not deserve to survive.

“Surely it is better for the best horse with the best trainer to win the race rather than the best chemist. It is not morally defensible to medicate a physically compromised horse in order to get it to race.”

He said that good personnel were running testing laboratories, but they were “hopelessly underfunded”. He said more out of competition testing and freezing of samples was needed.

“One lab director knew their equipment was outdated and feared there was ‘open season’ in the state so they sent some samples to Hong Kong where they found so many drugs it took 7 days to clean the equipment.”



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