By T.D. Thornton
If Congressman Paul Tonko (D-NY) has his way, a new regulatory organization called the Thoroughbred Horseracing Anti-Doping Organization (THADO) will be governing the sport’s drug rules by Jan. 1, 2017.
Tonko announced his plans to file sweeping medication reform legislation within the next few weeks in a press teleconference Friday morning. Under his proposed new federal law, an 11-member committee would be created to establish uniform national drug standards whose oversight and enforcement would be the responsibility of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
Although Tonko was vague on some points of his ambitious plan–most specifically funding, which he described as being the responsibility of the industry, and not taxpayers–he made it clear he has bipartisan support for his bill in Congress, and that a raft of industry and animal welfare groups have lined up behind the concept, including The Jockey Club, Breeders’ Cup Ltd., Water Hay Oats Alliance (WHOA) and The Humane Society.
“I’m doing this because I believe it is the sound and fair and just thing to do from all perspectives,” Tonko said. “My commitment here is to move forward with the creation of national, independent anti-doping authority that I believe will protect our athletes and build integrity into our horse racing industry.”
Tonko referenced the U.S. racing industry’s current “patchwork system” of state-by-state regulation “that is not doing the job that we need here to speak forcefully for the horse and the athlete [and] that basically denigrates the perception of the sport.”
Under Tonko’s proposal, the mechanism for getting individual states and racetracks to come into compliance with the proposed federal law would be a steep penalty: Entities that do not abide by THADO’s regulations would not be allowed to participate in interstate wagering.
Tonko also underscored that the proposed law “would not create an ongoing role for the federal government in the racing industry.”
Tonko said THADO would be different from previous legislative attempts to provide federal drug oversight to the racing industry because “it’s a better balanced and more pragmatic approach that will bring what is a growing sense of necessary reform to the system.”
Sean Magers, Tonko’s communications director, confirmed via email that the proposed legislation only covers Thoroughbred racing, and that Standardbred and Quarter Horse racing would be unaffected by the new national drug rules.
“I think it’s very important to understand that we can no longer turn our backs to the health of horses that are the athletes and that are the prime focus of this industry,” Tonko said. “Many of these horses certainly have been pushed beyond their limits, and are only able to run due to medications designed to mask underlying health issues. This dangerous ‘race at all costs’ mentality has produced tragedies in many cases that I find, and I’m certain many people find, unacceptable.”
USADA chief executive officer Travis Tygart commended the proposal.
“It is our hope that the model of independence, harmonization, and enforcement of robust anti-doping programs envisioned through this legislation can be realized to finally truly protect the health of the athletes and the integrity of the competition,” Tygart said.
According to a supporting document provided by Tonko’s staff, the breakdown of the 11-member THADO board would be as follows: The USADA CEO, five USADA board members, and five “at large” directors appointed by USADA from nominees presented by the Thoroughbred industry. The appointment of the Thoroughbred industry representatives would be “subject to certain conflict of interest limitations.”
“I think it offers a more comprehensive and practical outcome, all while giving authority to an independent organization,” Tonko said.
Both in- and out-of-competition testing would be mandated, but as for specifics, Tonko said “the standards developed and the rules and regs would be up to the panel.”
According to Tonko’s supporting document, initial funding for THADO would come from “loans and donations.” State racing commissions would later be tasked with paying THADO “amounts based on that state’s number of starts run during the previous month,” and “in no event will the funds come from an increase in takeout.”
On the heels of Tonko’s announcement, The Jockey Club issued a press release announcing the formation of a Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity (www.horseracingintegrity.com) comprised of The Jockey Club, the Breeders’ Cup, WHOA and The Humane Society. The home page of the coalition’s website highlights the statement that “only a national, independent group like the USADA can create and maintain a system that protects horses and the future of Thoroughbred horse racing.”
James Gagliano, president and chief operating officer of The Jockey Club, said that “the racing industry has taken thoughtful and significant steps toward medication reform in recent years and we believe that the creation of this coalition demonstrates widespread support for further changes, changes that can be made in a more timely fashion.”
With the heft of those combined organizations behind the new THADO proposal, it is unclear what the future might be for existing initiatives like the National Uniform Medication Program and the organization that developed those standards, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.
“I think it remains to be seen,” said Dr. Dionne Benson, DVM, executive director and chief operating officer of the RMTC. “We’re just going to continue to do the work that we do. I think there will always be a place for good research on horses, and there will always be the need to have that research. We’ve gotten very far in the last 18 months with the National Uniform Medication Program, but we’re certainly not all the way there, and it’s certainly not as easy as anyone would hope.”
Benson said the issue of states’ rights could come into play in trying to enact a law that mandates federal oversight on medication.
It is also unclear what the budget would be for such a widespread drug oversight program. According to the sports drug-testing website The Caitlin Perspective, the National Football League and Major League Baseball each spent $10 million anti-doping contracts in 2011. That same year, the sport of cycling spent $4.7 million and the International Tennis Federation spent $1.3 million.
For the sake of comparison, the California Horse Racing Board announced May 21 that its budget for drug testing for the upcoming fiscal year would be $1.2 million. At that CHRB meeting, executive director Rick Baedeker testified that California alone tested 59,000 individual samples last year, and he made a point of noting that “to put it in context, USADA during that same time frame, testing samples from around the country, tested about 9,000 samples.”
Eric Hamelback, chief executive officer for the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said his organization would like to see further clarification on how THADO would be funded, “but at this point we would not support anything that gives control of our industry’s simulcasting signal essentially to this organization,” he said.
“The funding, we think, would be passed on to the horsemen,” Hamelback said. “We spend close to $40 million a year on testing alone. To give that to a private organization, we’re going to be looking at another—to throw a figure out there—$20 million. I don’t see how [THADO supporters] don’t think it would be passed on to the horsemen, whether it would be some sort of starter tax or purse reduction. I don’t think this can occur without some financial strain once again put on the horsemen.”
Keeneland released a statement which read in part, “Although not currently a member of the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, Keeneland is committed to achieving these initiatives vital to the growth and success of our industry, and we urge other race tracks and horsemen to constructively work with the Coalition and other industry leaders with a sense of urgency. We will achieve uniformity with integrity only through constructive dialogue and coordinated action. “