Almost three months ago, I wrote this commentary stating that the proposed bill commonly referred to as the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act, which would create a national anti-doping agency for the sport, would be the most important development in U.S. racing in over a decade.
In the meantime, the bill (HR 3084, also known as the Barr-Tonko bill after the two Congressmen who introduced it) has been attacked over concerns that it would turn over drug testing, penalties and research to the federal government and that it ignores the slow but incremental progress that has been made in the current decentralized state regulatory system.
Neither of these concerns has any basis in fact.
First, the act would not create a new federal agency, and it wouldn’t use any taxpayer dollars. It would not create ongoing federal oversight of horseracing but would appoint and empower an independent, non-profit with the task.
Second, the existing system is broken, seriously flawed, getting worse and is directly contributing to the decline in the Thoroughbred racing industry. Rules vary widely, state by state and are inconsistent. Drug testing is woefully inadequate with little differentiation between overages of legal therapeutic drugs and true performance enhancing drugs with penalties not consistent with the severity of the infraction. The individual states simply do not have the funding, the personnel or the motivation to do a competent job.
Anyone who has worked in U.S. racing and had contact with state racing regulators knows that generally these organizations are politically motivated and truly not interested in solving the serious problems that racing faces.
Politics interfering: worrying cases in three states
1. The threat to shut down racing in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania on October 22, Governor Thomas Wolf’s administration announced it may have to shut all Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing in the state due to ongoing funding shortfalls. Racing industry regulatory funding in Pennsylvania is paid for through a tax on wagering handle, which has steadily declined for years and now generates about $10 million annually. The fund covers all licensing and regulatory matters, including the staffing of a laboratory that conducts all state-required drug tests, among other duties.
The total annual cost for these regulatory activities is about $20 million. Hence the shortfall.
What the administration doesn’t seem to recognise is the that the largest single factor in driving that decline in wagering on horse racing has been the dramatic expansion of casinos/racinos in Pennsylvania. For example, when the racino opened at Parx Racetrack and Casino in Bensalem, wagering there immediately fell by 20 percent because of competition from the slot machines.
In fact, Pennsylvania has been a national leader in casino/racino expansion with slot machines. According to information on the Pennsylvania Racing Commission website, the six stand-alone casinos and the six racinos have a total of 26,229 slot machines in operation. These machines generated gross gaming revenues of $197.9 million and contributed $105.9 million in tax revenue to the state for October alone.
It is important to note that the Pennsylvania racing industry has grown to $1.6 billion-a-year in part due its share of the slots revenue, and it supports 23,000 jobs. Put in the proper context, Pennsylvania is threatening to shut down the racing industry over a $10 million annual shortfall from wagering, which, in part, is due to cannibalization from slot machines that generated over $100 million in tax revenue in October alone.
Can the racing industry place its future regulatory issues in the hands of this political environment?
Last Friday, Governor Wolf’s administration announced it was working with legislative leaders to solve the shortfall. There has been speculation that the use of the threat of a racing shutdown was orchestrated to get the racing industry to pay for some of this “shortfall”.
2. The cloud over racing in Texas
Texas has also been threatening to shut down racing - but for political, not funding, issues.
In an effort to support the state’s racing industry, the Texas Racing Commission, which regulates the tracks, voted to allow historical racing machines, known widely as Instant Racing, to operate in the state. Powerful state political leaders, who say Instant Racing could bring in a form of casino-style gambling, have threatened to de-fund the commission because of this. If there is no racing commission, there is no racing. They say the decision about Instant Racing should be made by the state legislature, not the commission.
The commission had been funded only through November, but an additional three months’ funding - considered by some to be insufficient to run the operation properly - has been agreed by the state legislature after Governor Greg Abbott appointed two new members to the commission.
Here is a very good account of recent events by Anna M. Tinsley in the Fort Worth Star Telegram. There has been a strong suggestion from political leaders that the commission will be forced to rescind its approval of Instant Racing, which would be a severe blow for Texas racing interests.
3. The shocking development in Indiana
In another state, Indiana, racing integrity suffered a huge blow when highly regarded and longtime Executive Director of the Indiana Racing Commission, Joe Gorajec was summarily dismissed from his position. On October 10, the Indiana Racing Commission voted 5-0 to remove him.
Gorajec had an excellent reputation nationally for his efforts on enhanced drug testing and seeking to eliminate performance enhancing drugs from the sport. He was a strong early advocate of creating a nationwide program to eliminate steroids in the sport.
Indiana was also the first Thoroughbred horse racing jurisdiction in the U.S. to implement testing and severe penalties for the use of cobalt in racehorses in late 2014.
What was truly shocking was a statement that Indiana Racing Commission Chairman Thomas Weatherwax made suggesting that the state needed someone in this role who could better market the sport.
Through some very good reporting by Ray Paulick of the Paulick Report, we have learned that Gorajec had written a commentary strongly supporting the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act. According to Paulick, he had submitted this to his board in August and was advised not to have it published.
I encourage you to click here to read the commentary and Paulick’s reporting. As is often the case whenever a state regulatory official is resolute on integrity issues, they routinely incur the ire of the horsemen’s organizations. If it is true that a racing commission placed the interest of the horsemen above the fundamental integrity of the sport, it is easier to understand why horsemen are opposed to this national legislative initiative.
Our medication policies are an embarrassment
It is no surprise to anyone that the horsemen’s (read trainer) organizations are opposed to proposed Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act. The new testing protocols and research associated with the law could be perceived as a threat to the interests of horsemen.
However, there is absolutely no question in my mind that all racing industry constituents would benefit from consistent medications rules, state-of-the-art drug testing (including out-of-competition testing), tough penalties for cheaters and modern research that would attempt to stay ahead of the cheaters.
Our current fragmented policies regarding medication rules, testing and research are an embarrassment and have directly contributed to the decline in interest and wagering on Thoroughbred racing.
Two trainers who are fighting back
I now ask you to review the issues regarding two of America’s most respected and successful trainers who are challenging decisions made by the regulatory commissions in two of the largest and most important racing jurisdictions in the country.
1. Graham Motion
Graham Motion, one of the most intelligent and articulate members of the Thoroughbred racing community, has been suspended for five days and fined $500 by the Kentucky Racing Commission for a positive test for the muscle relaxant Methocarbarmol, also known as Robaxin. This is a permitted therapeutic substance under Kentucky rules, with a recommended withdrawal time of 48 hours before a race.
Motion has said that the horse in question, Kitten’s Point, was last treated seven days before the race, which is more than three times the recommended withdrawal period. This is Motion’s first career medication violation since he started training horses in 1993.
In a statement on October 7, Motion said: “While it would be easier to accept the suspension and pay the fine, I believe it’s important to follow through with the appeal process. This case points out a disturbing problem with medication policies in general and highlights the challenges all trainers are facing with inconsistent guidelines and inadequate protocols.”
These inconsistent guidelines and inadequate protocols are just some of the serious deficiencies that exist in the current regulatory environment.
2. Bill Mott
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott is contesting a 15-day suspension he received when one of his horses tested positive for substantial overages of the therapeutic medications Lasix and Banamine in a race at Belmont Park on September 20, 2014. When Mott requested a split blood sample to have the blood re-tested for his appeal, he was told by NY State Gaming Commission that the lab had no blood left to provide it, even though the commission is required to provide one.
It is important to note that, coincidentally, both of the overages for Lasix and Banamine were at levels seven to ten times above the maximum permitted level on raceday. It needs to be further noted that raceday administration of Lasix at NYRA tracks is done by NY State-licensed and NYRA-employed veterinarians.
I understand the trainer responsibility rule, but how can a trainer be held responsible when a state-licensed employee of the racing association administered the Lasix?
This Lasix high test result could certainly indicate an error in the testing procedure in this case. Mott has sued the NY Gaming Commission and the state’s equine testing lab. He could easily have accepted the 15-day suspension and the $1,000 fine and moved on. However, his reputation and his record are clearly important to him - and they should be. The combination of the extraordinarily high levels of the test and the incompetence of not maintaining proper split samples clearly indicates serious problems with New York state’s drug-testing protocols. These issues reflect very poorly on the credibility of New York’s regulatory practices.
Survey shows bettors’ lack of confidence
Finally, if you have any question as to whether the current regulatory structure is doing an adequate job in medication rules, testing, penalties and research, please take a few minutes and read the results of an online readers’ survey that the Daily Racing Form published on October 26.
The survey included 1,860 responses. Seventy percent were bettors/racing fans, 10 percent were trainers and the balance were owners, breeders or employed in racing. Seventy four percent of the respondents had participated in the industry for at least 20 years. More than 50 percent bet a minimum of $5,000 a year on racing and 22 percent bet more than $25,000 a year.
Here are some of the sobering questions and responses:
Do you believe states are currently effectively catching trainers or veterinarians who are using illicit drugs?
NO - 78%
Yes - 16%
No opinion - 6%
Do you believe that states are capable of adopting uniform regulations without the structure that would be imposed by the Barr-Tonko bill?
No - 60%
Yes - 31%
No opinion - 9%
Are you in favor or opposed to passage of the proposed Barr-Tonko bill?
Opposed - 22%
In favor - 64%
No opinion - 14%
Where should regulation/enforcement of Lasix/raceday medication lie?
National - 77%
State - 16%
Local - 7%
There is no question from reading this brief survey that the current regulatory structure does not have the confidence of the bettors and that an overwhelming number of respondents feels that performance enhancing drugs are a problem for our industry.
USADA’s impressive credentials
Finally, I do not think enough has been said about the skills and experience of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the independent non-profit agency that would run the medication program under the proposed Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act.
USADA is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. It currently runs all of the in-competition and out-of-competition testing for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
One of the criticisms that has been leveled against USADA is that it has never tested horses before. However, it does test for a remarkable number of substances prohibited in humans that also exist in horse racing: EPO, HGH (Human Growth Hormone), thyroxine, masking agents, etc. This section of the USADA website details the scope of the testing protocols and the prohibited substances tested for. The level of testing sophistication and the tools available to racing would increase exponentially with USADA running the medication and testing programs.
In the meantime, support for this legislation continues to gain momentum. It is indisputable that sticking with the current situation will be the downfall of the Thoroughbred racing industry. Change is the only hope for the future.