Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Don't whinge!

As I feared, our plans for world domination this week didn't get as far as the starting gate.  Our four runners were whittled down to two fairly quickly.  Of the four, one (Eljaytee, who ran a nice race at Windsor last night) was making his debut in a maiden race and couldn't be considered a realistic chance.  The other three, though, all looked to have some sort of chance of getting us off the mark for the year.  However, the three became one.  Das Kapital's trip to Chepstow today was scrapped yesterday morning when Chepstow was abandoned because of water-logging; and then a couple of hours later Turn Of Phrase's trip to Bath tomorrow was aborted as she was eliminated.

More evidence to refute the supposed problem of small fields.  Her race had a safety factor of 14; 29 horses were declared.  Even if it had been divided, there would still have been an elimination.  It's amazing that there's so much racing and yet so few options in Class Six races, nearly all of which are over-subscribed.  I don't know when there'll be another race which I regard as being as suitable for her as I feel that tomorrow's one would have been.  I'll enter her for one race next week and one the week after that, but they're both at a different distance (12 furlongs rather than 10).  Oh yes, the further brahma - the one handicapper who is able to run (Cloudy Rose at Bath tomorrow) has drawn 12 or 12.  You couldn't write it!

On a broader topic, I'm just going to touch upon the Baffert thing.  What's been annoying me is the line of whingeing which says that 'there was such a small amount of betamethasone detected that that could not be performance-enhancing, so what's the problem?'.  Well, I'll outline what the problem is.  Injecting a horse's joints with an anti-inflammatory / analgesic is performance-enhancing.  People wouldn't do it otherwise.  And I'll explain why it's performance-enhancing.

You'll probably have heard someone telling you that it's great when a horse has a good appetite (is 'a good doer') as then you can work him harder and he'll get stronger and fitter.  Well, that's true, but in general isn't really relevant.  The limiting factor as to how much work you can give a horse is rarely the energy levels which he gets from his food; far more frequently it is his fragility, the fact that if he does too much one or more of his parts will be damaged.  Horses are very fragile, far more so than humans (mainly because the forces going through their body are something like 14 to 16 times more than a human has to cope with, on the basis that the horse goes twice as fast and weighs maybe seven or eight times more, force being mass times velocity) and so you can't train them nearly as hard as humans can train.

Bill O'Gorman once summed up the skills of a trainer to me very neatly, "It's simple: you just have to get the horse fit without hurting him, and then place him in the right races."  That's the key: you have get the horse fit without hurting him.  That's the skill of a trainer (and it's impossible to get it right all of the time).  Now, leaving aside the fact that working and racing him on a pain-killer is ethically unacceptable as you're taking away the horse's ability to make his own judgement about how safe it is for him to do the work and thus making it more dangerous for him, that's the main problem: take away the pain from a horse's joint and you can train and race him harder (in the short-term, anyway, until he breaks down) so that he will improve because you can give him more work than you would be able to do without the pain-killer, because he doesn't realise that you're hurting him and thus he won't object.  And this extra work makes him stronger and fitter.

In an ideal world, anti-inflammatory joint injections would not be permitted at all.  Plenty of trainers don't use them anyway because of the ethical objection outlined above. I don't, and I know that Gay Kelleway doesn't either, for the same reason.  (This came out one Sunday a few years ago when we happened both to be pundits on the Sunday Forum on ATR, and the subject came up).  However, they are permitted, presumably because it would be so hard to police a total ban.  But what can be policed is that there should be no trace of them in the horse's system on race-day.  If you find a trace, even a tiny trace, of them in the horse's system, then the horse has been trained on betamethasone - and, if he is a horse who would otherwise be struggling to cope with the workload, he is a stronger and fitter horse than he would otherwise have been, for the reason outlined above.

It's like DNA or a finger-print at a crime-scene: you only need to find one small item to know that the person has been there.  It is being (probably wilfully) obtuse to peddle the line of argument that only a tiny amount of betamethasone has been detected and that such a tiny amount can't have had any performance-enhancing effect.  The fact that there is some still in the horse's system shows that he was previously injected with it; and you can be sure that when he was given that injection, he was not given an amount so tiny as to have no effect.  It would be like if a finger-print were found at the scene of the crime and the accused's line of defence was that that's only one finger, and you'd need more than a finger to commit the crime - there's only evidence of one finger, but that's evidence enough to show that the person was there.

It's simple.  If you don't want your horse to test positive to betamethasone, don't have any injected into him.  And if you want to have him injected, have the injection done so far ahead of the race that there's no chance of any traces of the drug still being in the horse's system.  And if you have the injection done close enough to the race for traces still to be there, don't whinge - especially to me!


David J Winter. said...

I didn't realise this was a medication that was injected only. Bob Buffett is maintains (well, he would, wouldn’t he) that all sorts of people were touching the horse and cross contamination must have taken place...obviously a falsehood in these circumstances. Thanks for the explanation. Good luck with Cloudy Rose tomorrow.

David J Winter. said...

I didn't realise this was a medication that was injected only. Bob Buffett is maintains (well, he would, wouldn’t he) that all sorts of people were touching the horse and cross contamination must have taken place...obviously a falsehood in these circumstances. Thanks for the explanation. Good luck with Cloudy Rose tomorrow.

Matthew Anshaw said...

People in Australia say Cobalt is not a performance enhancer.

Can the same argument you have thrown up against Bob Baffert be used against Cobalt deniers ?

My understanding with Cobalt was trainers believed ( perhaps wrongly ) it increased the red blood cell counts and as such a horse could recover better from hard workouts.

neil kearns said...

Nice one John , you are right any amount of a banned drug is too much , seems to me the crucial paragraph of your piece is the Bill O'Gorman bit often heard US trainers excuse the use of drugs on the grounds horses couldn't take the training/racing regime seems to be there is an alternative to the drugs change that regime .

John Berry said...

Thank you for that feedback. In turn:-

David, the drug can get its way into the system by other means. If Baffert has indeed been rubbing a cream into the horse's skin which contains betamethasone (although it's hard to believe that he would have been stupid to have done so because doing so was (a) totally unnecessary as soap and water would have cleaned up the rash equally efficiently, and (b) it would have guaranteed that the horse would fail the dope test - so basically his current 'exuse' is that he is so stupid that he totally pointlessly cost his owner a Kentucky Derby victory, with all the x amount of million-dollars that goes with it) then betamethasone would have got its way into the horse's bloodstream that way. I'm not his biggest fan, but I find it hard to believe that he would have been stupid enough to have done that.

Matthew, I don't really understand Cobalt, and whether it is indeed a performance-enhancer. I do, though, understand it enough to know that it is against the rules to have a high concentration of cobalt in a horse's system. and that he will only get a high concentration of cobalt in his system if he is fed a cobalt-rich supplement - and therefore one just does not give horses cobalt-rich supplements. It's too easy!

Neil, yes, what always strikes me when as the obvious retort, when these US trainers are saying that horses can't cope with training & racing, without a particular drug, is to point out that the drug has only been in existence for x amount of years, and that horses coped well enough prior to its introduction. In fact, one could argue that horses cope better without it: a quick glance at the form-book confirms that horses were able to race more and more frequently in the past when these drugs did not exist than they do now.

Unknown said...

This was a really interesting post and follow up answers. Thanks.