LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Where in sports will the illegitimate use of steroids strike next? Try horse racing.
The trainer who has the best chance to saddle multiple winners Saturday in the $10-million Breeders' Cup races at Churchill Downs says that he has great concern about the abuse of steroid treatment of horses.
"There's too much use of several medications in racing, but steroids are what bother me the most," says Shug McGaughey, who will start 3 favorites in the 7 Breeders' Cup races. McGaughey has Personal Ensign in the $1-million Distaff, Easy Goer in the $1-million Juvenile and Mining in the $1-million Sprint.
Of the trio, only Easy Goer has lost a race and he is 4 for 5 and considered the best 2-year-old in the country. Their combined record is 22 for 23, and Personal Ensign, a filly, is 12 for 12 and one of the candidates for 1988 horse of the year.
"It happened in the Olympics, it's happening in the National Football League and it's going on in racing, too," McGaughey said, referring to the controversial use of anabolic steroids, synthetic male hormones. "It's something horse racing should be concerned about."
McGaughey, 37, began his training career in Kentucky, then 3 years ago moved to New York to train for the Ogden Phipps family. Kentucky has one of the most liberal medication policies among racing states, but New York's is the strictest, in that it prohibits horses from running on any medication.
Steroids, which have legitimate uses, are used in different ways for horses. A Churchill Downs veterinarian said he sometimes uses steroids on post-operative horses to ease their trauma and help them regain weight. A well known consignor at some of Kentucky's expensive yearling sales has been suspected of beefing up his horses with steroids.
Some human athletes use steroids to gain weight, strength and muscle mass. They may have the same effect on horses.
"Steroids can make an 18-month-old horse look like a 24-month-old," said Gary Lavin, a veterinarian at Churchill Downs. "They mature a horse quicker. But trainers aren't using them as much, in my opinion, as they used to, because there's always a downside to this and other medications. If you overdo the use of steroids, the bones can mature too fast and there can be problems with them absorbing the shock of running."
Equine research frequently produces a difference of opinion--the debate over the usefulness of medication given to bleeders, for instance--and steroid use is in that category.
David Ziff, a Maryland veterinarian, believes that steroids won't do to horses what they may cause in humans, who have been said to risk heart disease, liver damage, sterility and high blood pressure because of excessive use.
Other trainers have suspected that Wayne Lukas, who has been the leading trainer in the country for the last 5 years, is a heavy user of steroids for his horses.
But Lukas says no.
"We've tried it on some horses but not to any great degree," he said Thursday. "There haven't been enough studies made on the pluses and minuses of steroids for us to consider using them on a big scale."
The suspicions about Lukas have been fueled by his success with female horses. Lukas is a leading American exponent of running females against males and this year his Winning Colors, a filly, beat 16 colts in winning the Kentucky Derby.
"Our fillies don't need steroids to be aggressive," Lukas said. "They're aggressive without them."
A California trainer said that he has quit giving steroids to his horses. Kidding on the square, he said: "They're no good because you can't teach the horses to lift weights."
Rules on the use of steroids vary from state to state. In New York, for example, horses can't be given steroids within 7 days of a race. In Kentucky, steroids may be given to a horse up to 4 hours before a race. Post-race tests are conducted to detect illegal use, just as they are for illegal medications.
"The use of steroids is a recent phenomenon here," said Jimmy Gallagher of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, which supervises racing there. "The first year we started testing for steroids, 1985, there were 51 positives. It's been less than that in the years since then, but their illegal use is still a matter of concern."
McGaughey said that he is not against medication, but believes that it should be used cautiously. Of his 5 Breeders' Cup starters, only Personal Ensign will run without phenylbutazone, a legal pain-killer in Kentucky and most racing jurisdictions. Besides his big three, McGaughey is also running an entry--Seeking the Gold and Personal Flag, who is Personal Ensign's brother--in the Classic.
McGaughey even gives a few of his horses steroids.
"With some horses, it's supposed to help," he said. "I've got this crazy filly in New York, and I gave it to her because we thought it might help her eat better."
Some trainers, according to McGaughey, medicate horses indiscriminately.