The time is now for medication reform

Much has been written in response to PETA’s undercover video filmed at Steve Asmussen’s stable during a four-month period at Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course, allegations of doping and cruelty, and subsequent reporting by The New York Times. 

While aspects of PETA’s investigatory practices were questionable and the Times reporting biased and incomplete, the portrayed conduct of the Asmussen team was reprehensible and indefensible.

I was encouraged to read today a statement by Ogden Mills Phipps, Chairman of The Jockey Club.  In Mr. Phipps’ words: 

“Enough is enough.

The horses deserve better.

Owners and trainers deserve better.

And in a sport based on the integrity of competition, certainly fans who wager their hard earned money deserve better.” 

Phipps goes on to say that if the work that the industry has undertaken to improve the state-by-state approach to medication and safety issues does not succeed, one alternative to these problems is federal legislation. He issues what amounts to an ultimatum: If the industry has not addressed medication reform to The Jockey Club’s satisfaction by the organization’s annual Round Table conference in August, then The Jockey Club will approach federal lawmakers to involve the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

I would suggest that state-by-state regulation on medication and safety issues has consistently failed the industry, and the time to begin change is now. In a recent commentary, I outlined the impossibility of establishing a U.S. racing commissioner under the current system because the bureaucratic structure of the state regulatory agencies challenges the industry as a whole and prohibits a centralized leader from wielding meaningful authority.

State regulatory agencies have consistently demonstrated that they are incapable of investigating and cannot afford to research new “designer” drugs that enter the market. They have neglected to implement rigorous state-of-the-art drug testing for existing medications. In the event of a positive test, even for an overage of permitted medication, the resulting penalties are generally not severe enough to act as lasting and effective deterrents.

In my seven years at The New York Racing Association, I worked with three different chairs of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board (now the New York State Gaming Commission), all capable individuals. However, all were career politicians and none possessed sufficient background or understanding of the complex issues facing racing. Regrettably, lack of industry expertise among regulators is a nationwide epidemic. New York is a leading racing jurisdiction and should have been at the forefront of medication and safety reform, but the state has been handicapped for too long by its laggard regulators.

As a point of interest, all vets licensed to practice at New York tracks are required to keep detailed records, by horse, of specific treatments and medications administered. Given all of the attention to transparency and equine and human safety, it’s curious that more has not been made of these records. Does a qualified individual exist to review them and take action when treatments seem abnormal? Is there even a scale by which to judge the course of “normal” treatment? 

To the question, “How do we stop the cheaters and their use of performance enhancing drugs?” invariably you hear that cheaters and their vets have the upper hand in financial resources and scientific expertise, putting them far ahead of regulators and their tests. Whether it is true or not, and I happen to think that it is, this is a sad commentary on the state of our industry.

As Mr. Phipps said, “Enough is enough”

Let’s wait no longer. I believe we need federal legislation to deal specifically with medication research, the development of uniform rules, and more sophisticated testing and tougher penalties that would apply across all racing jurisdictions in this country. This federal legislation should not create a federal agency but rather, as Phipps implies, designate authority in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), a non-profit, non-governmental agency. USADA should be mandated to set up the proper structure consistent with their current practices, ensure that it is properly funded, and operate it independent of any racing industry factions.

The above suggestions are not unique and have been articulated by others. I would hope that when The Jockey Club and other industry organizations move forward on a federal legislative initiative, they receive the support to make this significant change. No other racing jurisdiction in the world has the fragmented, decentralized medication program that we have in this country, and the American Thoroughbred racing industry will perish without a radical change resulting in a proper national medication reform program.


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