There was talk about the new Fox sports network and horse racing's growing presence on television, along with the outreach made by America's Best Racing “brand ambassadors” affiliated with The Jockey Club, but the main focus was on integrity and medication issues during the 61st annual Jockey Club Round Table Conference held Sunday in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
For years, the Round Table served as an opportunity for other racing organizations to talk about their efforts to improve the economics of the sport, but as the failures mounted, Jockey Club stewards decided they'd had enough and concluded it was up to them to lead on issues they felt were of the greatest magnitude.
As such, The Jockey Club enlisted business professionals from the outside world, consultants like McKinsey & Co. and the market research company Penn Schoen Berland to better understand the nature of American horse racing's challenges and how best to address them. Rather than influence decisions, The Jockey Club has taken the bull by the horns, investing in television, first with a series on NBC Sports in 2012 and expanding that with a major presence in 2014 on the new Fox Sports 1 cable network that goes into 90 million homes beginning next Saturday.
The Jockey Club is trying to lead the way on medication reform, even though it has no authority and can only influence policy through public pressure, education, and financial support of certain programs.
Building on to its support of the now 12-year-old Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and the more recently formed Thoroughbred Safety Committee, The Jockey Club is pushing for advancements in several areas related to integrity. Specifically, the Thoroughbred Safety Committee is recommending that all veterinary treatment records of racehorses be entered into a database and that testing shift from standard protocol (depending on the state, it is generally winner, beaten favorite, random selection in each race) to “intelligence based criteria.” Jockey Club vice chairman Stuart Janney said horse racing must follow the lead of other sports and greatly expand its out-of-competition testing program.
“(Out of competition testing) plays an increasingly important role in doping control as organizations and regulatory authorities try to combat the growing sophistication of substances that enhance performance,” said Janney. “It can be a powerful deterrent and, in our sport, it is a perfect bookend to post-race sampling.”
Janney pointed out that the 2012 and '13 Kentucky Derby participants were tested out of competition, along with recent Breeders' Cup contestants and this year's Wood Memorial and Belmont Stakes runners. Yet by The Jockey Club's estimates, only 1,000 such tests are done each year.
The Jockey Club is committing up to $250,000 annually in 2014 and 2015, through the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, to increase that number, focusing out-of-competition testing on Graded stakes races.
While horseplayers may feel that all races should be subjected to out-of-competition testing, Janney said Graded stakes “are the most important races in the consumer market and with the most prominent horses competing, these races are potentially the most impactful to the Stud Book.”
The additional funding will only be used if the out-of-competition tests expand beyond blood-doping and look at anabolic steroids and all Class 1 drugs. Janney said the testing must be done at labs accredited by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. The only labs currently accredited are the University of California-Davis Kenneth L. Maddy Laboratory and HFL Sport Science Inc. in Lexington, Ky.
Janney's recommendation followed a stunning report from Rob Green, a partner in the public opinion firm Penn Schoen Berland (they were the pollsters who helped get Bill Clinton to the White House). Green's presentation reflected the importance of doping and integrity issues to horseplayers, especially those wager the most.
Green's company surveyed 816 “committed bettors” – many of them described as “big fish” or “whales” (in betting parlance, those who wager huge sums) and found that drugs and integrity outpaced excessive takeout and industry leadership (or lack thereof) as the most pressing issue they see. The results led him to conclude, without any doubt, that drug and integrity concerns “directly damage” the economics of horse racing in the U.S. “Drug and integrity issues lead horseplayers to bet less,” he said.
Among some of the results of the survey:
— 86% of the biggest bettors avoid certain tracks and states because of concerns over medication/integrity
— 79% of horseplayers factor in illegal drug use when handicapping races at certain tracks
— By a margin of 9 to 1, horseplayers say they bet less, not more, because they have to factor the possibility of illegal drug use
— 91% of horseplayers are “tired of waiting” for medication reform and want it now
— 82% of big bettors want to see all drug testing results published, 79% strongly support out-of-competition testing, and 73% think a horse's attending veterinarian's name should be made public.
That's how deep the suspicions of doping run, that the biggest bettors believe knowing the name of a horse's vet will help them cash a bet.
As Janney said after Green's presentation, those who ignore the survey results are “numb, delusional, or possibly both.”
Eclipse Award-winning journalist Ryan Goldberg, the son of a former trainer, in many ways represented the views of those horseplayers during his presentation.
Goldberg co-authored a highly acclaimed series of articles on medication and racing for the Thoroughbred Daily News and said the overuse of therapeutic medications is just as much a problem as illegal doping.
Using information from a New York Task Force Report on the rash of fatal injuries at Aqueduct last year, Goldberg asked, “Why would a trainer inject the knee with hyaluronic acid six days before a race, and give dexamethasone, a corticosteroid, and Bute 48 hours before post time? Or in another case, DMSO, Vetalog, Vitamin K and Liquamycin, 48 hours before a race, then Bute and electrolytes the day before? Or separately, give 24 separate injections of 9 different drugs in three and a half weeks?
“This was one of the big takeaways for me,” he added. “In American racing there is no clear distinction between where therapy ends and competition begins. And that needs to change.”
Goldberg said he wants more transparency on what legal drugs horses are given and what the test results show.
“If racing is 99.9 percent clean – as some argue – then show me,” he said. “Publish who is tested, what they were tested for, what type of test was used, and what the result was – not just pass/fail.
“Most importantly, make medication records public. It's been done before: NYRA published the records for the Belmont Stakes runners leading up to the race. Why not every graded stakes? How would the public, and journalists, and animal-welfare groups, react to seeing this information? I believe that transparency like this would stop excessive drug use in its tracks.”
Goldberg talked about the efforts of Jeff Gural, who is running the Meadowlands harness meet with an iron fist in an effort to clean up the sport. Gural has hired a private investigator who understands racing and makes unannounced visits to training centers to collect out-of-competition samples. The samples are tested at the best labs in the world. Gural kicks suspected cheaters off the track.
Handle at the Meadowlands has since soared.
“Except Gural is an island,” he said. “No harness tracks have reciprocated his exclusions. And he said not a single Thoroughbred executive or official has called to pick his brain.”
In closing remarks, Jockey Club chairman Ogden Mills Phipps said, “Clearly our wagering handle and our business are being compromised. We know that congressional leaders are frustrated by the speed of our reforms, and if we don't get our own house in order they will do it for us.”
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