Commentary – Horse Racing: We Gonna Have A Sport Or Not?

by | 01.30.2020 | 9:51am

Sport is characterized by a challenging dichotomy that threatens its very existence as a viable enterprise worthy of both participation and widespread appreciation.

Athletes are drawn to sport in the main by those with a passion for contests and games of skill. It is this ardor shown on the courts, courses and battlefields that in turn attract followers and devotees.

If the contests and games are of sufficient interest to the public that they attract widespread coverage and involve the potential for glory or riches that can monetized, they in turn attract an element that is the flip side of the coin, which forms the other element creating the aforementioned dichotomy.

Lovers of sport, both the players and the audience, want a sport that is conducted on a level playing field so that they can trust and believe in the results.

Cheaters in sport lack the faith in their own skill set to think they can win on the up and up, so they seek an edge.

Hence organizers of major sports implement guardrails to protect the honest athletes and the viability of the contests.

If one thing has been gleaned over the past century dating back to the Black Sox World Series scandal 101 years ago it is the gradual realization that no sport is capable of guaranteeing the sanctity of its enterprise from within.

Unless an outside, independent entity is installed to oversee the rules of the contest, it is bound to fail. And even this practice, in and of itself, is no guarantee of success. Without it, however, the enterprises have no chance of achieving success.

Thoroughbred, Standardbred and Quarter Horse racing currently are reliving a nightmare scenario that engulfed and very nearly cost Major League Baseball its fan base when in 1998 a few steroid-using power hitters generated home runs at an unheard of rate. When their steroid use was revealed it sent fans of America's pastime reeling.

And even though MLB made great strides in resuscitating their enterprise by cleaning up drug use, it was discovered late last season that edge-taking of a different sort was being employed to tilt the baseball diamond in favor of cheaters. This time they employed modern technology to steal signs given by the catcher to the pitcher and from coaches to their players. Once again, it has rocked a game that was invented right here in the good old U.S.A. that rivals Mom, Apple Pie and Old Glory as revered institutions of American life.

Next you are going to tell me that the Soapbox Derby is rigged, right? Oh, it has been?. Crap. Scrap that.

Look—cheating has existed in every sport and game human beings have come up with to add a layer of excitement, satisfaction and plain old fun with the purpose of enriching the lives of themselves and their avid followers.

Along with promoting their sports and games, organizers have a sacred responsibility to ensure the integrity of their contests by creating viable guardrails.

Drafters of the Horseracing Integrity Act currently going through the Congress of the United States have as their goal the installation of the United States Anti-Doping Agency as an independent body tasked with overseeing drugs and medication policies, testing and most important of all investigation and enforcement.

Sadly the reason they are needed, aside from everything you have read so far in my piece, is that those currently responsible for the duties USADA is being recommended for have shown no interest in correcting a tilted playing field that on a daily basis is driving fans, gamblers, breeders, trainers and owners from the sport.

Racing institutions (The Jockey Club, Water Hay Oats Alliance, etc.) and individuals that have been pushing for adoption of this Integrity Act initiative have weathered one storm and volcanic eruption after another, but finally reached a launching pad in the House of Representatives that appears headed for adoption during 2020.

This probable success will take place in a climate in which those industry participants that figure to benefit most from a level playing field have fought against it from the very beginning. Horsemen's groups (Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, etc.), racetracks (Churchill Downs, etc.) and veterinarians (American Association of Equine Practitioners, etc.) have raised various reasons why the bill should not be passed and why USADA should not be installed to oversee medication/drugs.

Maintaining the status quo works for these groups, to the direct detriment to the well-being of horses, owners, trainers, fans, gamblers and breeders. Racing is an insiders' game and they want to keep it that way.

While the forces of change finally have the upper hand in this battle, danger lurks on the immediate horizon. Hiding in plain sight in their midst and having arrived in a Trojan horse through the back door are some anti-legislation forces that have been laying the groundwork to make one final assault against progress.

Attaching themselves to a recently formed group of well-meaning industry leaders, the likes of Churchill Downs (leader of the opposition against adoption of the bill and especially installing USADA) and Dennis Drazin (Monmouth Park executive) are behind an effort seeking a delay in implementing the legislation while they attempt to draft and lobby among industry groups and professionals for a so-called “compromise” bill based on the notion that what ails racing can be fixed by insiders.

In written testimony to the Congressional Sub Committee conducting the hearing on January 28, Drazin wrote “putting aside the fact that I have always been opposed to federal legislation and feel that the industry should self-regulate, I have been participating in an industry effort to unify and support a bill that all interested parties feel would be a compromise….While I still believe that federal legislation is unnecessary, if it is inevitable, I want to be part of the solution, and HR 1754 is not a solution, but only a small part of all the needed reforms for our industry.”

Churchill Downs and Drazin realized a few months ago that the proposed legislation was headed toward passage and they needed a plan to infiltrate a legitimate new group and surreptitiously fight from within by working on the inside as well as the outside.

It behooves those who have worked so long and tirelessly, invested so much time and money and put their hearts and souls into legislation designed to bring enhanced integrity to our sport and to best ensure the well-being of its athletes to be aware of these wolves dressed in sheep's clothing and to meet them head on in the light of day in order to expose them and their motives for what they are.

Barry Irwin is the founder and chief executive officer of Team Valor International racing partnerships.

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