The Devastation of Horse Racing Drugs

Professional horse racing is a high-stakes, high-pressure world of fierce competition, with trainers and owners who go to extremes to gain a competitive advantage. In the United States, the use of drugs to obtain that advantage is quite common. If you consider the amount of money involved, it’s easy to understand why. PETA, for instance, estimates that care for a single horse can cost as much as $50,000 annually. David Wells, once among the sport’s premier trainers, had won $1.5 million in an 11-month period when he was indicted as part of a ring of unscrupulous trainers and other horse racing insiders. More, it’s not uncommon for owners to pay $1 million or more for a top-tier thoroughbred.

Integrity Crisis

As confidence in the integrity of North American horse racing has eroded, the sport has seen profits decrease. Between 2007 and 2013, the total amount of money wagered on North American horse racing decreased by more than $4 billion. A poll conducted by The Jockey Club once found that 80 percent of bettors consider the likelihood of drug-use when handicapping races and when deciding which horses upon which to wager. US legislators have taken note of the sport’s drug-fueled issues and have made efforts to curtail them; but illegal drug use is difficult — if not impossible — to eradicate. It’s a problem that reaches beyond banned substances, too, as some drugs made illegal in most of the world are legal in the United States. The use of certain drugs might sometimes be in the horse’s best interest, but more often, horse racing drugs are administered in the service of winning and making money, with a callous disregard for the animal’s health and wellbeing. The following list includes types of performance-enhancing substances used in US horse racing and descriptions for each.


As with human beings, stimulants are used to provide a temporary energy boost, which in theory, can give a horse the extra oomph necessary to win a race or improve a workout time. Caffeine is one banned stimulant that’s been commonly used in horse racing. Trainers and owners have grown more careful about using it, though, as it’s easily detected. Etorphine, commonly known as elephant juice, is a tranquilizer in larger animals but can be used as a stimulant in horses at proper doses.

Pain-relief compounds

This class of horse racing drugs alleviates or masks a horse’s pain from disease or injury, allowing the animal to effectively ignore the injury. The problem with these drugs is that running on an injury has great potential to exacerbate the damage — many times gravely. Phenylbutazone, commonly referred to as "bute" is one type of pain-relief compound used to lessen pain in racehorses. Bute is classified as a "nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug" (a commonly used drug-class in humans). In high doses, it can be used to help injured horses perform better, leading to greater, sometimes irreversible injury in the long run. More exotic types of substances have also been used for pain relief in horse racing to allow the animals to ignore pre-existing injuries. These include cobra venom and dermorphin (frog juice), a powerful opiate extracted from the skin of the South American waxy tree frog. In the US horse racing, these substances are rarely administered in the best interests of the animals.

Anabolic Steroids

As with human athletes, steroids are used in horses to increase strength, stamina and to enhance healing and decrease healing times. In the United States, steroids are routinely used in the training process. As long as a horse doesn’t test positive for steroids on race day, the animal is cleared for competition.

Beta Blockers and Erythropoietin

Beta blockers are a class of drugs that reduce the impact of stress hormones, which can be especially beneficial in racehorses, as these animals are under high amounts of stress. These compounds slow the heart rate and promote a sense of calm. Erythropoietin is a hormone that regulates the production of red blood cells. This compound is used to increase oxygen delivery to muscles, which can be critical during exertion. These compounds have also proven popular among human athletes.

Sodium bicarbonate

Sodium bicarbonate isn’t a drug at all, but rather a common, inexpensive household item. Commonly known as baking soda, sodium bicarbonate can be used to enhance endurance, recovery and to mask the presence of illegal substances in a horse’s system. Baking soda isn’t as beneficial to horses running shorter distances, but can be advantageous in training, as it neutralizes the effects of lactic acid, a byproduct produced by the muscles during exercise. This neutralizing effect provides sodium bicarbonate’s benefits in recovery and endurance.


Lasix might well be the most controversial substance in US horse racing. This substance is a powerful diuretic that’s banned in almost every other horse racing country. It provides a couple of benefits. First, the amount of urine excreted because of the drug is so great that horses have been known to lose 20 pounds or more after taking it. The obvious benefit is that the horse has much less weight to carry during the race; the obvious danger is that the animal can suffer dehydration and even kidney damage from running on this drug. Lasix has a legitimate medical use, too, in that it effectively controls exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage EIPH in horses. EIPH is a condition wherein physical exertion causes the horse to bleed from the lungs. The primary symptom is bleeding from the nose during and/or after a race. EIPH can pose a serious threat to a horse’s life and animals are commonly forced into retirement if they exhibit the condition a certain number of times. One study found that, in a single year, 95 percent of all race horses in the United States were injected with Lasix on race day.

Although legislators and US horse racing professionals have made efforts to curb the use of performance-enhancing substances, there’s still a long way to go. Generally, if a horse tests clean for banned substances on race day, it’s cleared to race, meaning many such substances are used in training. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that hundreds of new substances are developed each year, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to detect them all. Regulators clearly have their work cut out for them. These poor animals spend most of their lives isolated from other horses, and rarely develop meaningful relationships with human handlers. The final and greatest injustice many of them face, however, comes at the end of their racing careers. When these animals can no longer race, many of them are slaughtered; even Derby-winning horses have ended up in slaughterhouses.

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