Congressmen Andy Barr, from Kentucky, and Paul Tonko, of New York, have introduced a bill in Congress calling for the creation of a national anti-doping agency for horseracing. It would replace the largely ineffectual network of state regulatory agencies currently managing all medication rule-making, testing and penalties for the industry
If passed, the bill (H.R. 3084, commonly referred to as the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act) would put the independent U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in charge of all anti-doping activities.
This would be a major step forward in American racing because state regulation of medication testing and penalties has consistently failed the industry at every turn, and these failures threaten the very existence of the industry.
Perhaps the best example of this is the decline of the handle (or total wagering activity) on Thoroughbred racing in recent years. Total handle of Thoroughbred races in the U.S. peaked in 2003 at $15.18 billion. In 2014, it was down to $10.55 billion - a fall of 30.5 percent.
I submit that the major contributing factor was lack of confidence in the integrity of races by the wagering public and by the owners of horses who subsequently left the industry. Some might suggest that the drop can be attributed to the foal crop decline or the financial market correction in 2008. However, while the handle was reducing in 2004 onward, the foal crop actually increased from 2002 to 2007, and double-digit declines in foal crop did not begin until 2010, long after the handle falls had started.
Much has been written about the inefficiency and actual incompetence of the state-by-state regulation on medication rules, testing and penalties, but I would like to write briefly about my direct experience with state regulation of medication rules while I was President of the New York Racing Association from October 2004 to April 2012.
During my seven-plus years at NYRA, I worked with three different chairmen of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board (now the New York Gaming Commission). All three of these gentlemen spent much of their adult lives in New York politics or state agency work. They had no experience in the Thoroughbred racing or breeding industries whatsoever. In fact, in addition to the chairmen, none of the Racing and Wagering Board members during my NYRA tenure had any Thoroughbred racing experience at all.
This pattern of leadership by state regulators void of any knowledge of racing is fairly consistent with the 26 state agencies that regulate pari-mutuel racing on horses.
Not surprisingly, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board was constantly suffering from lack of adequate funding from the state. In 2008, when the racing industry was moving rapidly towards removing steroids from racing, the board acknowledged it did not have the funds to purchase the proper equipment for post-race testing of steroids.
Through the leadership of Rick Violette and its board, the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA) stepped forward and agreed to fund the $400,000 to purchase proper testing equipment for anabolic steroid post-race testing. Without this financial contribution from the NY horsemen, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board would have been unable to properly fund steroid testing.
Another shocking development would occur over a year later when the New York legislature approved a recommendation to move the NY state equine drug testing lab from Cornell University to Morrisville State College. Was this done because NY state wanted to improve the sophistication of its equine drug testing lab? No. It was not. Chairman John Sabini announced that Cornell had wanted New York state to make a capital contribution to improve the testing lab at Cornell and the state had refused.
Also, Sabini announced that Morrisville was willing to do the testing less expensively than Cornell. This may have helped NY state balance their books, but it was a huge loss for the integrity and credibility of New York racing.
It is now three years since I have worked at NYRA and it is a safe assumption that the 26 state racing commissions are coming under increased financial pressure, as we have seen in New York.
Setting racing rules and policy should not be done on a piecemeal state-by-state basis. There are currently 18 equine testing labs in operation in the United States, and experts suggest that the industry would be better served by three dedicated state-of-the-art labs. This would immediately improve the quality, efficiency and funding of equine drug testing.
Perhaps the most immediate impact of a USADA-implemented equine drug testing program would be the expansion of out-of-competition testing for racehorses. Currently, less than one percent of all racehorses tested are tested out of competition in the United States. In other major racing jurisdictions, the out-of-competition percentages are substantially higher: France is 10 percent, Victoria Australia is 21 and Hong Kong is 11.
Why is this important? Peter Sacapoulous, an attorney practicing equine law, who owns and operates Green Gables Stud in Indiana, wrote an article titled Out-of Competition Testing: Coming to a barn or training center near you in the summer 2013 issue of the Horsemen's Journal, a publication of the National HBPA (National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association).
He wrote: "Out-of-competition testing aims to detect prohibited substances, primarily blood-doping agents, that are not detectable in post-race tests and that are specifically identified and prohibited by regulation and/or rules. Many of the substances targeted by out-of-competition testing are detectable 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."
State regulators often point to the very few positive tests that current testing regimens produce as an indication of the efficacy of their programs. However, they should understand that their post-race tests are incapable of identifying powerful blood-doping agents. For a thorough and concise explanation of the USADA testing protocols, I strongly suggest that you click on this link: www.USADA.org/test. You will not find anything approaching these details and protocols on any state regulatory website.
I fully understand and appreciate that there is very little collaboration and consensus-building in the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry. But let's focus on this one very important point: there are cheaters operating at virtually every racetrack in the United States; left unchecked, they will destroy this industry.
I understand the opposition to USADA from many camps: the purists don't think this legislation goes far enough in not banning all race-day medications; the cynics believe this is just another ploy by the Jockey Club to backdoor an anti-Lasix agenda; the horsemen and the regulators are throwing up any number of arguments, understandably, as they will be the most directly affected by this important legislation.
Enough. Let's set these differences aside for the greater good of the industry.
Finally, here are some experts on this topic who are worth listening to:
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, who clearly knows the importance of the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry and is on the front row when it comes to the efficacy and practices of state government, said at the recent Jockey Club round-table conference:
"But our industry is at a point where meaningful further progress requires movement on a national level. Why? Well, very simply and very frankly, because our collective experience over the past few decades has demonstrated conclusively that individual state racing commissions just can't get the job done. Folks, the only way we're going to get this done is through federal legislation."
Jeff Gural, owner of two NY Standardbred tracks and the Meadowlands racetrack in New Jersey, and an outspoken advocate for federal legislation, said at the Albany Law School Institute:
"The game has changed. Whether USADA is the right way to do it, we all know that it should be uniform. We all now know that there should be two or three super labs, not 30 labs. We all know that there should be criminal penalties, but there's not. I know for a fact that the states are not capable in regulating this in Standardbred racing. They tried, but they are not funded properly."
Edwin Moses, Chairman, United States Anti-Doping Agency and two-time Olympic 400 meter hurdles champion, said in a recent Jockey Club round-table speech:
"USADA's sole mission is to preserve the integrity of competition, inspire true sport and protect the rights of clean athletes. We do this by providing education, developing cutting-edge science, implementing robust testing programs, conducting investigative efforts and holding accountable those who would use dangerous performance-enhancing drugs to cheat their competitors."
Every racetrack executive, owner, bettor, trainer, breeder, jockey and industry participant should inform themselves and support this important federal legislation giving USADA the control of the U.S. equine medication rules, drug testing, research and enforcement policies.
I strongly believe it would be the single most important development in American racing in over a decade, and it deserves your support.