By T. D. Thornton
After 16 months of rule-writing, committee meetings and public comment periods, what was supposed to be a long-awaited vote on a comprehensive out-of-competition (OOC) drug-testing protocol for California racing devolved into chaotic shouting and the trading of personal barbs at Thursday’s California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) meeting.
When the debate (a solid hour on this one issue alone) finally simmered down amid repeated requests from CHRB chairman Chuck Winner for the opposing sides to stop squabbling, no vote was taken, and the plan to bring California into alignment with the model rules established by the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) got bounced back to the committee level for yet another round of review.
Prior to Thursday’s meeting, the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) and the California Thoroughbred Trainers (TCC) had submitted written opposition to the passage of OOC rules based on “compelling legal and scientific reasons why these rules should be sent back to committee and revised.”
But when repeatedly pressed by CHRB commissioners on Thursday for verbal, bullet-point specifics rather than the hundreds of pages of legalese that had been crafted by attorneys for the two groups, the CTT and TOC had difficulty articulating exactly what they wanted changed so commissioners could try to move the process forward.
“The problem is—and I read every word of it—there’s too much baloney in it,” said commissioner Madeline Auerbach of the legally dense objections. “If you’d cut to the chase and tell us what the heart of your concern is, then we can address it….There’s just too much fluff in it.”
Alan Balch, the CTT executive director, did attempt to outline several key concerns, and he said a critical objection to the OOC testing rules in their current, proposed form is the problem of correctly identifying who the responsible party is if cheating is detected away from a licensed CHRB facility.
“That’s been a standing problem with every iteration of the OOC rules that we’ve seen in any state,” Balch said.
The back-and-forth bickering took a nasty turn when CHRB equine medical director Rick Arthur, DVM, accused the TOC and CTT of using stall-and-delay tactics to put off or derail the passage of the new OOC rules.
“This is really silliness, and I’m just going to tell you I’m fed up with it,” Arthur testified. “Ninety-nine percent of the trainers, this will never, ever affect. And it’s the one percent that it will affect that we’re interested in.”
Arthur noted how since 2014, the OOC model rules have gone through multiple levels of national review by both the Racing, Medication & Testing Consortium and the ARCI. In California, he added, “it was presented here a year and a half ago. And [just now horsemen are] coming up with these last-minute changes.”
Arthur then voiced frustration at the CHRB itself, lashing out that board members seem to be blind to the fact that how, in his opinion, the horsemen’s groups are allegedly stringing out the process for far too long.
“If you don’t see how you’re being played, well I don’t know what to do,” an exasperated Arthur told the commissioners.
“Sometimes the CTT moves in bewildering ways—they’re horse trainers, let’s face it,” Arthur sniped. “I’ve been in the game all my life, and I know that somebody’s convinced themselves that something terrible is going to happen [to horsemen] about this. [It’s the] same game they played with third-party Lasix. It took two years—two years—to make a more complicated regulation [than the one initially presented].
“It’s not you,” Arthur continued, again referencing the board members. “It’s the horsemen that are coming in at the last minute and putting up a roadblock…They don’t understand what they were talking about…”
At this point, Greg Avioli, the TOC’s president and chief executive, began shouting over Arthur’s dressing-down of the horsemen.
“I’ve had just about enough of Dr. Arthur, and I’d like the board to remember his outburst in June of 2017 that was so bad that we complained to the CHRB,” Avioli yelled. “We were told this was Dr. Arthur’s last year, and Dr. Arthur is still here—enough is enough! He’s supposed to represent the state, and I’m sick and tired of his detrimental, challenging remarks to the TOC and the CTT. He should go do something else.”
Chairman Winner intervened to end the chaos that had erupted in the meeting room.
“Look guys, let’s stop this nonsense, okay?” Winner said. “We’re all trying to do what’s in the best interest of racing—everybody knows that. Dr. Arthur has his viewpoint. You guys have your viewpoint…any kind of personalization is a bad, bad idea. This is not about personal values or personal disagreements. This is about people who disagree on the merits of the issue. So let’s keep it that way. Let’s stop the yelling, and try to achieve what we all want to achieve, which is the safety and the health of the horses and the people on their backs.”
Winner said that the CHRB’s Medication and Track Safety Committee would take another crack at crafting a set of OOC rules on July 20, its next scheduled meeting. –@thorntontd