Prisoner’s Dilemma at the Racetrack

Skip addressed the sad end to Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro last week. While reading an article in last Sunday’s New York Times by Gina Rarick about the differences beween thoroughbred racing in the US and Europe, a classic example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in sport jumped out at me.

In the US, racehorses can be injected with a number of performance enhancing drugs, like the diuretic Lasix and the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone, on race day. The use of these substances is either banned or not used in much of the rest of the world. Why do US trainers use performance enhancing drugs so extensively? According to the article

Many trainers use whatever medications are permitted whether or not they believe a horse needs it. If they don’t, the thinking goes, they will be giving an advantage to a competitor.

This is a perfect example of the outcome in a setting with strategic behavior under “prisoner’s dilemma” type conditions. Instead of the cooperative outcome, where nobody uses these substances, rational choice leads everyone to play the non-cooperative strategy of doping regardless of the situation.

The article also points out some interesting differences in the industrial organization of horseracing in the US and Europe. Sounds like there is an interesting research project there for someone who does IO and has an interest in horseracing. Not that there would be anyone blogging around here with those interests…

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Author: Brad Humphreys

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