“Andro” and “Bute” – Our National Pastime and The Sport of Kings

What factor, common to professional baseball and thoroughbred horse racing, has shaped so much – dare i say too much – of each sport’s history? As someone who’s spent several years observing our national pastime and the sport of kings from within, I’m here to say its the following formula: m² ¬ t² = d³. For those more inclined to a qualitative description: When there’s too much money (m²) in a sport whose key participants have a finite amount of time to earn it (¬ t²), the inevitable result is an abundance of performance-enhancing drug use (d³).

PEDs such as HGH and androstenedione (“andro”) permeated professional baseball in the 20+ year period from 1990 to 2013 (see https://baseballsgreatesthitters.com/steroids-and-home-runs/). It manifested itself in a dramatic increase in the number of homers – not only by traditionally prodigious sluggers, but by players not previously known for their long-ball prowess. Just as important, PEDs enabled numerous players in the twilight of their careers to perform at a higher level than what might have been expected under ordinary circumstances. Better performance, of course, meant bigger contracts – a critical factor for players whose best earning years are typically over before the age of 40.

In the face of losing its grip as the de facto “national pastime” to the NFL after the strike-shortened season of 1994, Major League Baseball turned a blind eye toward what was going on because of wildly favorable fan reaction to the home run explosion (the most famous example of which was the 1998 long-ball race between the St. Louis Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs). It wasn’t until the 2005 season that MLB implemented PED testing and lengthy suspensions for offenders.

Organized baseball, of course, has had the benefit of a commissioner, who is placed in office by franchise owners to uniformly enforce rules agreed upon by the collective mouthpiece of players/employees – i.e., their union (MLBPA) – and the owners, themselves.

But in the world of thoroughbred racing, who speaks for the horse?!?

When it comes to the sport of kings, consider the following numbers: The typical thoroughbred has a racing career of three to four years. The number of races during each of these campaigns ranges from 7 to 12 for what I’ll call “championship” caliber horses, and 18 to 23 for more run-of-the-mill “claimer/allowance” horses. Annual upkeep is in the range of $40,000 to $45,000. Yearling purchases can run from anywhere from $25,000 to as much as $300,000 or more. Without taking a deeper dive, these numbers don’t engender a great deal of confidence in financial stability, let alone long-term success.

Is it a wonder that drug use in the thoroughbred racing industry has been around for well over half a century? (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?y=iipDhd3275Vw for yet another take on the disqualification of Dancer’s Image in the 1968 Kentucky Derby.) It took the death of more than two dozen horses in 2019 at California’s Santa Anita Racetrack to provide sufficient impetus for action to regulate the thoroughbred racing business.

Enter Congress and a familiar figure … the senior Senator from the Bluegrass State, Mitch McConnell. A bipartisan bill introduced by McConnell and backed by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), titled the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, would set national standards to promote fairness, increase safety and help preserve thoroughbred racing. Passed in the House of Representatives, the bill is now awaiting Senate attention. A critical component of the Act would be the formation of a Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, an independent, non-governmental regulatory body responsible for improving current regulations and bringing a new level of transparency to the sport.

In other words, the thoroughbred industry – unable to effectively govern itself for the past 50+ years – would finally be subject to an independent oversight body … much like Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis moved from his federal judgeship to become MLB’s first commissioner. In his first notable decision as baseball’s new czar, he issued a lifetime ban to eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox for their role in fixing that season’s World Series against the Cincinnati Reds (commonly referred to as the “1919 Black Sox Scandal”). His action has been credited with restoring the integrity of our national pastime.

Irrespective of the framework of the pending legislation, its effectiveness will require “strong handling” (to use an industry term) by the three-person governing board and the full “buy-in” from all of the thoroughbred industry’s stakeholders.

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