I love Winx.
Not just because the Australian super mare has won 24 of 30 lifetime races, including her last 20 in a row. And not because she has a turn of foot that reminds me of myself in my 20s when the bartender yelled “last call.”
No, I love Winx because she proves my point — or at least offers strong supporting evidence — that racehorses are not delicate creatures that perform best when given extended rest between starts.
Winx has raced on three weeks’ rest or less in 19 of the 29 starts following her career debut — that’s 65 percent. Compare that to recent US superstar American Pharoah, who raced on three weeks’ rest or less just three times in the 10 races subsequent to his lifetime bow (30 percent). (Incidentally, those races were the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes — otherwise known as the Triple Crown.)
Yet, despite this, I continually hear from racing fans and industry types that more rest constitutes “doing right by the horse,” which, of course, implies that less rest is not doing right by the horse. More than once, I’ve seen social media blow up with requests that such-and-such horse be retired because it has raced too much.
In fact, one of my favorite social media posts ever came in the wake of Arrogate’s surprising defeat in the San Diego Handicap earlier this year, when one Facebook user concluded that Bob Baffert’s stable star was “over-raced.” Yeah, I can see how nine lifetime starts (at the time) could tire a horse out. I mean, the great John Henry started 83 times during his lifetime, but he had to be exhausted by the time he won the last four races of his career and was named Horse of the Year at the age of nine.
Another aspect of the Winx story that intrigues me is that the Chris Waller trainee is a daughter of Street Cry, the same stallion that sired Zenyatta. Like her Aussie counterpart, Zenyatta also compiled a long winning streak — 19 races, to be exact — during her career. But unlike her blood relative, Zenyatta never returned to the races in 21 days or less.
Of course, many will argue that drugs are to blame.
The anti-bleeding medication Furosemide, or Lasix as it is commonly called, is not allowed on race days at Australian tracks, while upwards of 90 percent of North American horses race on the medication.
Numerous studies have shown that Lasix is a performance-enhancer, in part some speculate, because it works very well for its intended purpose, thereby allowing horses to run to their potential. But Lasix’s diuretic properties have led others to believe that it may be detrimental to the longevity of a horse’s career. They point to statistics showing the precipitous drop in US racehorses’ average starts per year since the widespread use of the drug in 1975.
However, according to Professor Ken Hinchcliff, dean of veterinary and agricultural sciences at the University of Melbourne, there is no proof that this is true, although he doesn’t rule out the possibility.
“There is much speculation that Lasix might have long-term health consequences to horses,” Hinchcliff told the Guardian. “I’m aware of no evidence that horses that have been administered furosemide are at greater risk of any particular disease. But I think we should be cautious that there could be long-term adverse effects.”
Personally, I’m with Dr. Larry Bramlage on this issue.
At Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital’s annual client education seminar in February, Bramlage said: “I’m a big Lasix fan. It’s good for the horse. But we cannot withstand the bad publicity that it creates worldwide. Society is against drugs, and they can’t tell the difference between heroin and Lasix.”
Well, I’m not sure about that last bit, but I completely agree with Bramlage’s take on public perception. Richard Dutrow said a lot of crazy things when he was a trainer, but I’m convinced he became a marked man when he claimed he didn’t know what steroids (specifically Winstrol, the drug that Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson used) did during Big Brown’s run for Triple Crown glory.
There’s a reason that Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are not in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame — it’s because almost everybody in the world, including my grandmother when she was alive, knows what steroids do.
In 2015, Thehill.com reported that “recent polling found that while the vast majority of adults in the U.S. called horse racing both exciting and fun to watch, only 14% had a very favorable view of the industry.”
For those numbers to change, steroids and other drugs need to be eradicated from the Sport of Kings and star horses need to run and run often.
In the meantime, I’ll just watch Winx and dream of what was… and what still can be.