As I read the June 9 article, “American Pharoah offers a Carpe Diem Moment for Racing,” I reflected on the 37 years since we last saw a Triple Crown winner. Horse racing has gone through many changes – some good and some we need to continue to work on.
Since I first walked on the backside of Sunland Park racetrack when I was 15 years old, my dream was to be a racehorse trainer. I spent the next decade and a half galloping horses at tracks all over the country, living in tack rooms, saving money and only taking enough time away from it to earn a college degree. When I graduated, I became a full time trainer. I met my wife Susan, the love of my life, when she was a mutuel clerk at a track in Nebraska. She cleaned thousands of stalls, walked many hots and nursed our babies in the tack room between sets. I was entrenched in the unique world of the backside; I was a racetracker and I have seen the good, bad and the ugly. I witnessed the zenith of our sport: huge crowds cheering on many of the greats like Secretariat, Buckpasser, and Dr. Fager.
I also saw the darkside. I saw horses hopped, races fixed, ringers and slow horses put down for insurance. I once saw a trainer boldly hang a needle in his horse in the saddling paddock. I may be naïve, but I believe we have overcome many of those sins on the road to redemption. Ringers, insurance fraud, and for the most part race fixing, are transgressions of the past. Yet, performance-enhancing drugs are the one sin that remains, and the level of its sophistication has grown exponentially.
Times change, but people don't. The trainer's mentality is that if it enhances performance, is not on the illegal list and won't test, it is okay to use. Today, the selection and availability of designer drugs produced in clandestine labs is unlimited. Computer models have given the underground chemist the ability to modify a known drug, whether anabolic, narcotic or stimulant, tweaking the molecule and making small doses even more powerful. And guess what: It doesn't test because it hasn't been identified and there is no organized effort to develop the test. Drugs like EPO can only be detected with sophisticated, expensive out-of-competition testing.
Performance Enhancing Drugs are real and are being used, whether we want to accept it or not.
The American Thoroughbred industry is at the proverbial crossroads. Ray Paulick captured it correctly when he said that “American horseracing's time to go above and beyond its existing patchwork of state-by-state regulatory oversight on medication issues is long overdue. It won't take long for any new fans to be dismayed by the current system.”
The choice is ours: which direction will we choose? The status quo consists of 38 dysfunctional jurisdictions that are underfunded, politically appointed, and lack the expertise and resources to challenge the cheaters. The other road offers the horse racing community an opportunity for a rebirth to insure the confidence and integrity that is essential to our survival. This bold road would appoint an independent, non-governmental organization like the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that has the funding, expertise and mission to level the playing field for trainers, owners, jockeys and the American men and women who spend their hard-earned dollars betting on the sport we love.
A pending House bill that will be introduced by Rep. Paul Tonko (NY) would take that idea and make it a reality. The bill is supported by the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, whose varied members include The Jockey Club, Breeders' Cup, the Water Hay Oats Alliance, the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders. The Tonko bill is not an anti-Lasix bill. It makes no mention of banning any medications that are already on the permitted list. Its sole function is to create uniformity with an organization that has the power, funding and expertise to deal with sophisticated cheating.
There will certainly be those who fear and oppose this path. For those who cite philosophical opposition to any federal involvement in our business (and I was one of them not long ago), the federal government is already involved with a law that has allowed exponential growth of wagering in our industry. The Feds gave us a unique law, the Interstate Horse Racing Act (IHA) passed in 1978 allowing free wagering across state lines. No other gambling industry has this privilege. Another example: race-fixing in the 1960s and '70s nearly destroyed our industry with states and individual jurisdictions impotent to combat it. The Feds came to our aid and started prosecuting jockeys and trainers under the RICO laws. Without federal help, Thoroughbred horse racing would have lost everything to corruption and greed.
All professional sports entities have a central authority that can deal quickly and fairly with challenges to their integrity – except horse racing. Without a central professional organization dedicated to creating gold standards for out-of-competition testing with the authority to administer punishment, there will be trainers who will continue to seek an unfair edge and we will continue our slide into irrelevance, losing fans and supporters instead of gaining them. We have made great strides in the past 37 years, but this is one problem that will not resolve itself. As the famous Einstein quote states: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
We all want to see our industry regain the prominence it once occupied. This is our opportunity for salvation.
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