If that headline sounds familiar, you might remember reading a 1998 column from Andrew Beyer that opens:
“Individuals who can’t face the truth about their own drug problems are commonly said to be in a state of denial. The same description might apply to America’s Thoroughbred racing industry.”
Beyer goes on to describe, in his view, widespread cheating by trainers using the drug clenbuterol. Take a few minutes and read that article. It was written more than 16 years ago, but it will sound all too familiar…and discouraging.
Few in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry want to acknowledge it, but cheaters in racing are as prevalent today as they have ever been. There has been much written about performance enhancing drugs in racing and there are studies and expert opinions that cover the spectrum of the issue. I have a simpler suggestion. Forget about reading all of those reports, and instead spend a few days at the racetrack with an intelligent horseplayer who bets serious money. Any sophisticated handicapper with significant wagers on U.S. races has developed their own opinions about who is cheating, and their own techniques to attempt to control for that factor in wagering decisions.
This past summer at The Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga Springs, New York, executives from McKinsey & Co. presented an overview of their study of the individual state regulators and the wide variance in medication rules, testing, research and, penalties. Each state is responsible for its own laws and regulations and the states are under increasing financial pressure to fund these activities. There currently are no universally agreed-upon best practices on rule making, testing procedures, and lab standards, and remarkably little research is being done on newly-developed drugs that are entering the backstretches of our tracks.
On the penalty issue, trainers who have overages of legal, therapeutic, non-performance enhancing medications are often reported in the same manner as trainers who are caught with illegal performance enhancing drugs. The Thoroughbred racing industry cannot maintain its fundamental integrity nor conduct its races on a level playing field with this patchwork collection of underfunded and ineffectual state regulatory agencies.
Recently, many industry professionals have been working to convince the major state racing jurisdictions to adopt the National Uniform Medication Program that was promulgated by The Jockey Club Safety Committee with the support of the National Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association in August 2013. Progress is being made, but make no mistake: This initiative will not solve the serious issues regarding performance-enhancing medications, a lack of sophisticated testing, and implementation of a meaningful penalty system for violators.
I’ve covered this topic before, but the treatment of cobalt is a perfect example of the dysfunction of the current regulatory structure. The presence of cobalt in racehorses has not been uniformly addressed in the U.S., yet the Hong Kong Jockey Club has been testing for the drug for eight years and new rules in Australia appear to already be working effectively. In the U.S. we have no national policy or even the semblance of a plan. Two states, New York and Indiana have rules in place for cobalt testing with no positive tests to date. Jeff Gural, operator of the Meadowlands harness track in New Jersey and two harness tracks in New York has instituted “house rules,” which allow them to ban trainer/drivers with horses over their set threshold levels. Gural has ruled off two trainers for high cobalt levels in out-of-competition testing.
However, cobalt is but a simple example of other serious medication problems that we have in this country. Another fundamental issue is the miniscule level of out-of-competition testing. As noted in the previously mentioned McKinsey presentation on state regulatory policies, the U.S. Thoroughbred industry conducts approximately 1 percent of its tests in an out-of competition environment. This compares very unfavorably with other international Thoroughbred racing jurisdictions who conduct between 10 and 20 percent of their tests out of competition. Even these much higher testing levels do not compare favorably with other sports. Out-of-competition testing in the U.S. for baseball is 25 percent, swimming is 59 percent, and cycling is 61 percent.
Why is out-of-competition testing so important? The racing industry has been led to believe by its current constellation of regulators that post-race testing catches the cheaters. However, Peter Sacopulos, lawyer, owner and operator of Green Gables Stud in Clay County, Indiana explains the importance of out-of-competition very succinctly in an article he wrote for the National HBPA Horsemen’s Journal Summer 2013 issue:
“Out-of-competition testing aims to detect prohibited substances, primarily blood-doping agents, that are not detectible in post-race tests that are specifically identified and prohibited by regulation and/or rules. Many of the substances targeted by out-of-competition testing are detectible for only a short period of time after being administered to the horse. In short, a horse administered a blood-doping agent prior to race day may test negative in a regular post-race test but may have received the potentially positive race performance effect of the prohibited substance.”
Many of the new blood-doping agents and synthetic drugs fall into this category. Put simply, post-race testing delivers 99 percent of samples that we collect in this country. Even if U.S. testing procedures and labs were overhauled, they would have no chance of catching all cheaters without a rigorous out-of-competition testing program.
So what does it matter? It matters a great deal. For example, total annual wagering handle on Thoroughbred racing in the U.S. peaked in 2003 at $15.18 billion and by 2014 it had declined by 30.5 percent to $10.55 billion. Some suggest that the handle decline is due to the foal crop, but these financial declines started years before the 2008 financial crisis and the serious reduction in foal numbers.
The integrity of races is tantamount for our pari-mutuel wagering system. Bettors are concerned about wagering integrity and a level playing field. Lack of confidence in our wagering product has to be one of the major contributors to the precipitous handle declines in recent years.
This integrity issue is critical for all participants in the industry. Owners must honestly confront this question: Was my horse’s inherent ability on display when he/she won that big race or was there a chemical assist? Breeders must ponder the same. We have a very serious problem that is not going away. Furthermore, this is not a betting and racetrack issue. Anyone who participates in this great sport at any financial or personal level – and that means owners and breeders who invest so much in our equine athletes – needs to demand change and take action. The status quo has failed the industry and gotten us where we are today. It won’t lead us to any bright tomorrows.