McKinsey presentation shows the way forward on medication and testing reform

Since 2011, The Jockey Club has used a report by McKinsey & Company to inform and guide initiatives to grow Thoroughbred racing in the United States. Officially titled “Driving sustainable growth for Thoroughbred racing and breeding,” industry stakeholders and watchers have begun to refer to it as simply “The McKinsey Report.”

The now well-recognized report from McKinsey was presented three years ago at The Jockey Club’s annual Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing. At this year’s conference, a representative from McKinsey presented new findings based on analysis of individual state medication, testing, research, and enforcement programs for Thoroughbred racing as compared to other sports and other international racing jurisdictions. While this presentation, "Raising the Standard of Testing and Enforcement," is unlikely to receive the same fanfare as its predecessor, I’d argue that it was the most significant presentation to come out of this year’s conference.

In a March commentary, I wrote, “State-by-state regulation on medication and safety issues has consistently failed the industry and the time to begin change is now.” The truth of this statement was hammered home on Sunday by Dan Singer, a senior partner and leader of the Sports and Gaming Practice for McKinsey, which conducted more than 20 interviews with executive directors of state racing commissions, laboratory heads, and industry experts. The firm also collected data on equine medication practices and expenditures from 22 state racing commissions and analyzed testing Requests for Proposals and laboratory contracts from 17 states. This appears to be the most comprehensive review of state-regulated medication testing, research, and penalties that has been undertaken.

Singer stated that the goals of a robust program were:

  • Preserve the integrity of competition         
  • Provide a level playing field
  • Promote animal welfare
  • Protect the rights of owners, trainers, and racing fans

One could draw two broad conclusions from Singer’s presentation: 

1) A high degree of variance exists in equine medication practices and expenditures among racing jurisdictions and between the U.S. and international racing jurisdictions. Specifically:

  • U.S. racing collects far fewer out-of-competition (OOC) samples compared with international peers and other sports. For example, in the U.S., OOC testing is approximately 1 percent of the total samples tested as compared to a minimum of at least 10 percent in other international major racing jurisdictions. Other sports in the U.S. conduct OOC testing at much higher levels with baseball at 25 percent, swimming at 59 percent, and cycling at 63 percent. The main and significant benefit of OOC testing is that it provides a way to detect use of substances that can affect performance on race day, but would have already left a horse’s system if tested immediately after competition.
  • Testing: State racing commissions’ testing practices lack uniform methods, rigor in the number of drugs tested, and consistency in laboratory procurement practices. 
  • Resources: Few states devote resources specifically to research and development, and the research that is currently being done lacks coordination and scale compared with other international racing jurisdictions or other sports that pool research funding. 

2) Establishing uniform equine medication rules and a central anti-doping agency could provide improved collection processes, procurement for testing, greater coordination of research, and improved lab accreditation processes. 

McKinsey’s findings crystalized my long-held opinion that the decentralized, state-controlled system is not adequately serving the racing industry based on the goals outlined above.

One example is especially illuminating: The cost per sample paid by racing commissions to the labs that conduct their testing. The cost per individual paired samples varies widely from a low in one state of $55 up to $230, depending on the state and the lab. The large discrepancy is due to significant differences in the efficacy and sensitivity of testing methods and variance in the way the individual states procure testing services. This one example makes it clear that achieving uniformity and reform in medication practices in this highly decentralized environment is a daunting – if not impossible – task. 

In recent years, there have been sincere efforts made by a number of industry stakeholders to achieve some uniformity and reform in medication testing and penalties. Regrettably, these goals of uniformity and reform have not been achieved and probably never will be achieved under the decentralized process of state regulation, financing, and control. Singer’s presentation proves that regulation simply cannot remain the fractured responsibility of state governments. 

In his closing remarks at the Round Table, The Jockey Club Chairman Ogden Mills Phipps noted that The Jockey Club Board of Stewards had instructed their management team to further investigate a relationship with the independent and well-respected U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). The organization is charged with managing the anti-doping program including in-competition and out-of-competition testing, results management processes, drug reference resources, and athlete education for all U.S. Olympic Committee recognized governing bodies. 

This significant change in the medication testing, research, and penalties program would require federal legislation. The goal of the legislation would be to move this important function from the individual states to a nationally sanctioned organization. This organization would be USADA.

At a meeting on Aug. 11 in Saratoga Springs, New York, organized by the Water Hay Oats Alliance, USADA CEO Travis Tygart said, “Our interest in this is a clean sport. We’re here for the right reasons. We would not be otherwise.” Tygart went on to say that the main reason that USADA is successful in handling drug testing and enforcement in the sports arena is the fact that it is an independent organization and not a federal agency.

Medication testing, enhanced research, and a complete review of the penalty structure in American racing are desperately needed and long overdue. McKinsey’s latest study clearly shows how damaging years of state-by-state regulation have been to our sport. I truly hope that the industry leaders will take the information he presented to heart, set aside regional biases and other differences, and move toward a uniform solution that will best serve the interests of Thoroughbred racing and breeding in this country and around the world.

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