The discovery that 11 horses owned by the ruler of Dubai tested positive for anabolic steroids has sent a huge shock wave through the racing world. But putting aside the tangle of issues surrounding it, is the real scandal not just the fact that horses were given substances known to be performance-enhancing, but that Flat racing puts immature horses under stresses they are not designed to take?
Those within the racing industry say that the Thoroughbred has become genetically engineered to mature faster than other breeds, that those in training are given higher levels of nutrients and carry light weights. We also know that disciplines involving speed or a rapid change of direction place the greatest demands on horses, whatever their age. As horses become tired, they are more likely to extend their limbs beyond the normal range, which leads to tendon and ligament injuries.
On the other hand, is it right to back them as yearlings and send them on to the racetrack as two-year-olds? Supporters of this system point to studies which suggest that introducing gradually increasing stress at a young age can be beneficial, as bones are able to re-model. At an international exercise physiology conference, it was suggested that the old practice of teaching two-year-old heavy horses to pull light chain harrows strengthened them for the years to come.
However, there is a big difference between gradually increasing stress and putting a two-year-old under repeated pressure on the racetrack. Even if horses escape injury during their brief careers on the racetrack, the wear and tear on their joints may predispose them to problems later on, notably osteoarthritis.
Then there is the mental stress: although some enlightened trainers allow their horses time in the fields, most racehorses are stabled 99 per cent of the time and fed low levels of forage. The result is a higher incidence of gastric ulcers and stereotypical behaviour – particularly weaving and crib-biting – than in the non-racing horse population.
The reason racehorses are put under such pressure is, of course, money. Realistically, that isn’t going to change, though there are bright lights amongst the gloom.
One is the Retraining of Racehorses organisation, which is doing such a great job in helping horses find new lives after racing by educating owners and riders on how to re-train them for other jobs and running everything from seminars to hugely successful competition series. The other is the RoR-approved rehabilitation centres and trainers which set horses on a new track.
Thoroughbreds are born and bred to run and, of course, every sport has its casualties: though racing has more than any other. Let’s just hope that the spotlight which has fallen on racehorse welfare continues to shine.