By Mike Kane
There was another Battle of Saratoga Tuesday in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. It involved verbal salvos from both sides over proposed legislation in the U.S. Congress to form a national authority to develop, regulate and enforce uniform medication policy for Thoroughbred racing in America.
The Albany Law School’s annual Saratoga Institute on Equine Racing and Gaming Law was the news-making venue for the debate. Before Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) a co-sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives, spoke at the midday luncheon, opponents criticized his plan for a federal approach during a panel discussion. The gloves were off two days after speakers at The Jockey Club Round Table urged for support of the bill.
At issue is the Barr-Tonko bill that would create a Thoroughbred Horseracing Anti-Doping Agency (THADA) that would hire the United States Anti-Doping Agency as the administrator. Currently, medication and drug enforcement is managed on the state level. A drive to have states adopt a national uniform policy is ongoing.
Trainer Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and the national HBPA, said the bill was the latest attempt by The Jockey Club to eliminate the race day use of Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication. In the process, Violette said The Jockey Club was hurting racing. He said that sports leagues make rules before the start of season and play by those rules. He accused The Jockey Club of undermining the sport’s integrity by questioning medication rules in its continuing to push for the abolition of Lasix.
“It wouldn’t be acceptable in any other industry. If Mark Cuban (owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks) said the draft was fixed, that the players were shaving points and the referees were betting games, he would lose his franchise,” Violette said. “He gets fined a half-million dollars for questioning a referee’s call.
“In other arenas that they aspire to be members of they’d be bad members. They wouldn’t be accepted as members. Yet somehow they can continue to trash the industry, to try to humble it so much that they can recreate it in the image that they want. That’s not an image that everyone agrees with.”
Tonko said that the time has arrived to move away from the drive to have the states slowly come into agreement on a uniform national policy.
“While the voluntary approach was well-meaning, the lack of effective follow-through has negatively impacted the perception of fair competition across the sport and has done little to build confidence in the minds of our sports fans and critics, many of whom are concerned about drug use and drug testing,” he said. “By creating a strong, transparent and independent anti-doping authority we can guarantee fair play, we can improve the health of our horses and we can bring new energy and spectators to this majestic arena.”
Tonko said New York state, which he described as a leader in medication enforcement, was reluctant to make some changes recently because officials felt tougher rules would send horsemen to other states.
“In other words, it’s nearly impossible for a state to take this step unilaterally, even If they want to do the right thing,” he said. “Similar to this concern is the issue of Lasix. While I know New York is holding a forum on Lasix use later this year, I contend that it would be difficult for an individual state to take strong action on Lasix for fear of putting that state at a competitive disadvantage vis a vis other racing jurisdictions. In short, what we have in horse racing is a classic collective action problem. The rules in one state greatly impact the rules in another. This is clearly a national industry that demands a national solution.”
Tonko said that he hoped that the legislative process could begin this fall with committee meetings and has set a goal of Jan. 1, 2017 to have THADA up and running. However, he acknowledged that it may take longer to turn the bill into reality.
Jeff Gural, who operates three Standardbred tracks, which he polices himself and bans horsemen who are found to violate the rules, said a federal governing body is needed.
“The game has changed,” the outspoken Gural said. “Whether USADA is the right way to do it, we all know that it should be uniform. We all 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 not regulating this in Standardbred racing. They tried, but they are not funded properly.”
To make his point, Gural said that New York state regulators were able to purchase a machine to test for the presence of cobalt in horses, but do not have the money to turn it on.
“That’s the situation,” Gural said. “If you’re a trainer in New York you might has well use cobalt because they’re not going to catch you.”
Gural said that other track owners should follow his lead and get rid of cheaters from their facilities.
“If they really cared, they would spend their own money and do something about it,” he said. “This federal legislation is going to go nowhere. There is not a shot in the world of this ever passing. The reason is because we’re not united.”
Violette said that horsemen or regulators were not involved in the drafting of the Barr-Tonko bill and it would be a mistake to accept the THADA proposal and let the USADA make policy, which he contends would lead to the abolition of race-day Lasix.
“We give power to a body that does not exist,” he said. “USADA in its own domain right now does not do the job that it will be required to do if this bill passes. They make no regulations in the Olympic sports or the Pan Am Games or collegiate games. They are the regulators. They are the cops. They are the enforcers. They make no decisions on picograms, hours from withdrawal, banned substances. They don’t do any of that.
“Yet under the Barr-Tonko legislation they would be chief cook and bottlewasher. Even in the domain in which they exist, the Olympic Games, they don’t even do the equine sports. Right off the top we are committing our future to an entity that doesn’t exist, doesn’t have the experience one would think would be necessary to move forward.”
Ed Martin, president of the Racing Commissioners International, which is leading the push for states’ adoption of uniform policies, said a national governing body is a bad idea. It would eliminate oversight and transparency that is part of the state systems and would give THADA unilateral power. Martin said it would possible, for example, for THADA to shut down the Saratoga meet if the racing association was violating rules.
Martin said Lasix is the not-so-underlying issue in the push for THADA supported by The Jockey Club. He pointed out that Triple Crown winner American Pharoah runs on Lasix. He said that the current and former chairmen of The Jockey Club use Lasix to treat the majority of their horses. Martin said that 85 percent of recently retired chairman Ogden Mills Phipps’s horses run on the medication and that 80 percent of new chairman Stuart Janney’s horses compete with Lasix.
“You could look at it this way: they took race day action to protect their horses or they used performance enhancement on race day,” Martin said. “How you present that issue determines the drumbeat that you consistently put out to the public and how the public then starts to view the sport. That shows up in some of the public opinion polls.”
Martin called for the supporters of the THADA model to join with the movement to push for a national approach through the states.
“Our attitude is if you have something to contribute join us,” he said. “There is no need for confrontational campaigns that potentially hurt the sport.
“This political campaign is divisive and it doesn’t advance a common goal that every everybody here has.”