(First in a two-part series.)
Horse racing has a culture of cheating.
Its problem is drugs. It's what the public calls doping. The methods differ, as do the drugs.
At one end of the spectrum, horsemen and veterinarians inject horses on race day with a wide variety of drugs or other foreign substances.
This practice is one of racing's dirty little secrets, although it's no secret to those who work in the stable area of a racetrack.
There exists a thick, bright line in racing regulation known as the 24-hour rule. This rule prohibits the administration of any drug or foreign substance, other than the anti-bleeder medication Salix (furosemide), within 24 hours of a horse's race. A few states have specific exceptions. This bright line is crossed with such regularity that its practitioners have become blind to its existence.
Horsemen rationalize this cheating by convincing themselves that they are just “helping” the horse. Many of the race day injections are to manage pain, mitigate bleeding, or calm a fractious horse. Several of these drugs are endogenous to the horse and go undetected in post-race testing. The “helping” of the horse is code for “it's not cheating if you don't get caught.”
An example of this culture run amok is the investigation and prosecution of veterinarians and horse trainers at Penn National racetrack by the United States Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
On March 27, 2015, The U.S. Attorney's Office issued a press release announcing that four veterinarians had been criminally charged (and had agreed to plead guilty) to conspiracy to unlawfully administer drugs to race horses. The release succinctly describes this activity as follows:
According to the charges, trainers allegedly placed orders for drugs and the defendants after administering the drugs, backdated the billing records to avoid detection. The defendants allegedly submitted false veterinarian treatment reports to the State Horse Racing Commission omitting from those reports any reference to the drugs administered to horses at the track on race day. The filing of these reports and the backdating of billing records were, allegedly, to further the conspiracy by concealing the illegal activity. These acts had the potential to defraud other owners and trainers whose horses were entered in the same race and defrauded the betting public as well.
This type of activity has been common practice on racetracks for decades.
A deterrent to this type of routine race day cheating exists in a national model rule requiring the administration of Salix by a third party. Under the model rule, a veterinarian employed or contacted by the state racing commission or the racetrack administers Salix. The rule is designed for the express purpose of keeping practicing veterinarians (who work for the trainer) out of the horse's stall on race day. Third-party Salix programs are effective in deterring widespread corrupting influences. It will not, however, stop anyone determined to get an edge on race day.
The status of the third-party Salix model rule is found on the website of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC): 18 states have adopted, 16 states have not.
Far more malevolent and injurious to the sport is what is likely occurring at the other end of the spectrum. That is the use of sophisticated performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) which taint the upper echelon of the sport. The methods for cheating at this level often do not involve simply sneaking into a stall on race day with an illicit drug in a syringe.
Best horses, best races
When it comes to major races, prominent Thoroughbred owner Bill Casner said, “I'll promise you that there will be some horses helped with PEDs (performance enhancing drugs).
“It would be incredibly naïve for anyone to think that this (PEDs) does not exist in our game. And especially at the high end because the high end is where all the money is at,” said Casner.
The “high end” to which Casner refers consists of approximately 450 Graded stakes races which are held annually at various tracks. These races make up less than two percent of the approximately 40,000 Thoroughbred races conducted annually. The purses for the Graded stakes, however, account for over $150 million, or 15 percent, of the $1 billion distributed annually.
Casner's path to the pinnacle of the sport is not well traveled. From galloping horses in the early 1960s at Sunland Park in New Mexico, to hoisting the Kentucky Derby trophy in the winner's circle in 2010 as the co-owner of Super Saver, he has witnessed the sport from the inside as few others ever have. His most memorable score, however, did not occur on U.S. soil. In 2009, his WinStar Farm homebred gelding, Well Armed, romped to a 14-length victory in the $6-million Dubai World Cup.
A member of The Jockey Club and the Water Hay Oats Alliance (WHOA), and former chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA), Casner has long been an advocate for clean racing.
Casner claims that a small but significant improvement in performance from illicit drugs is sufficient to drive a trainer to cheat. Especially if they believe their fellow trainers are likely doing the same.
At the elite level of the sport, the incentives to cheat are at their highest, and the financial incentives go well beyond the traditional trainer's purse percentage.
“There is too much difference in the amount of money between a Grade I and a Grade II horse. Grade I horses are stallions. Grade II horses are regional stallions. And Grade III horses stand in [minor state-bred programs],” said Casner.
Nine of the top 10 stallions on Blood-Horse magazine's 2016 General Sires List won at least one Grade I stakes during their racing career; 2017 stud fees for these nine horses range from $60,000 to $300,000.
“The share values and the breeding rights that trainers receive become these huge portfolios for them. And this is where they really make their money,” said Casner.
“If EPO can give a horse two or three lengths extra – that is astronomical,” said Casner. “How many races are lost by a nose? How many races are lost by a head? A neck? A length? A length-and-a-half? Two lengths?”
“Performance enhancing drugs work. They make already great athletes, human or animal, even greater,” said Jeff Novitzky.
A matter of trust
Few people in the world have the gravitas and insight to opine on the culture of cheating in sports as does Jeff Novitzky. Once referred to by TIME magazine as the Eliot Ness of baseball's “steroid era,” Novitzky has been on the frontline of exposing the cheating of fallen icons such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, and Lance Armstrong.
Novitzky served as a federal agent for 15 years with the IRS Criminal Investigations Division, followed by seven years as a special agent for the Food and Drug Administration. He is now the vice president of Athlete Health and Performance with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world's largest mixed-martial arts fight promotion.
Novitzky spoke at the 2016 Jockey Club Round Table Conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. One of the most salient takeaways from his presentation involved his personal interaction with users of performance enhancing drugs.
Speaking of the numerous investigations he conducted, Novitzky said, “Throughout those investigations, I got to interview 150 to 200 high profile professional athletes who chose to use performance enhancing drugs. In addition to asking them about where they got the drugs, how they paid for them, and how they were distributed, I always took the opportunity to ask them why they chose to use. It wasn't anything special about me, but I was in a position and they were in a position to be compelled to tell me the truth. In fact, we prosecuted several athletes for not telling the truth.
“So I think in the majority of those 150, 200 conversations I got the truth, and I always took the opportunity to ask, ‘Why did you choose to use performance enhancing drugs? What led you down that path?'
“And the answer I got an overwhelming majority of the time, it came down to one word, and that word was trust.”
Novitzky added: “They said, ‘I didn't trust that my teammates weren't using. I didn't trust that my opponents weren't using, and maybe, most importantly, I didn't trust that my sport's governing bodies cared enough because of the weakness of the program or in some cases total lack thereof.'”
A report titled Stakeholder Input, released November 2016 by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, contains a survey in which the issue of horsemen's “trust” is addressed.
In response to the statement “Doping with designer drugs is rampant,” 58.1 percent either totally agreed or somewhat agreed. By nearly an identical margin, 57.2 percent of the respondents indicated they either totally or somewhat agreed with the statement “Most people I know cheat.”
If horsemen's trust in the effectiveness of their anti-doping program is the determining factor that drives cheating, the racing industry has reason for alarm.
A lack of will
Horse racing in the U.S., to a large degree, is a sport that abides a culture of cheating.
The unwillingness of regulatory bodies to implement common sense deterrents has led to, in many states, risk-free cheating. A clear-cut example is out-of-competition testing.
Out-of-competition testing occurs days, weeks, or months before a horse's race, or between races. Its goal is to determine if horses are training on prohibited drugs that can enhance performance on race day.
Blood doping drugs like Epogen (EPO) cause the body to produce additional blood cells that allow the athlete – horse or human – to increase their oxygen carrying capacity. The drug can only be detected for approximately three days after administration. The performance-enhancing effects will last up to 120 days – which is the life span of a red blood cell.
Many anabolic steroids are like blood doping drugs in that the performance enhancing effects far exceed the short time frame of detection.
States with little or no out-of-competition testing have invited their horsemen to cheat with impunity.
In November 2007, Blood-Horse published an op-ed column I wrote on out-of-competition testing. At the time of publication over a year had passed since the development of a method to test for the presence of the blood-doping agent Epogen. Only six states had moved forward to deter and detect this emerging threat by implementing out-of-competition testing.
In the commentary, I hypothesized why the industry had not moved more quickly.
Would some track owners prefer not to endure the inevitable publicity of a successful trainer charged with blood doping? Would some horsemen prefer to not be inconvenienced by the thought of testing anytime, anywhere, without notice? Are some racing commissions paralyzed by institutional inertia?
Now, 10 years later, we know the answers to all these questions are … yes.
In 2014, of the top 20 states ranked by the number of Thoroughbred races run, 15 conducted little or no out-of-competition testing. These 15 states account for almost two-thirds of all races. Our international counterparts are averaging 10 percent of their testing from out-of-competition sampling, while the U.S. is conducting only 1 percent.
The racing industry's assertion that this failure is due to a lack of funding is disingenuous.
For example, in Indiana in 2015, over 10 percent of the testing for the 120-day Thoroughbred and Quarter horse race meet at Indiana Grand originated from out-of-competition samples. All samples were analyzed for blood-doping agents, a broad spectrum of anabolic steroids, and repartitioning drugs (such as ractopamine and zilpaterol). Samples were taken from horses stabled at the track or at training centers and farms.
The total cost of this program, including sampling and testing, was less than $50,000. To place this in perspective, the cost is less than two purses for maiden special weight races, which at Indiana Grand in 2015 were $32,000 each.
Although Indiana's program is funded by the racing commission, it is also a reasonable expense to be borne by any racetrack or horsemen's association intent on protecting the integrity of its racing program.
The UFC's Novitzky says horse racing's out-of-competition program is a “green light” for cheaters.
When asked what would happen if horse racing's out-of-competition program was applied to human athletics, Novitzky said athletes “would be enhanced to the gills.”
Thursday: In the second of this two-part series, Gorajek examines the limitations and challenges of testing laboratories, weaknesses of the current state regulatory system, and a possible solution going forward.
Joe Gorajec served as the executive director of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission for 25 years (1990-2015). He is also a former chairman of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (2008).
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