Commentary: USTA Lacks Understanding Of Federal Bill

by | 09.21.2017 | 1:44pm
Harness racing at the Meadowlands

The U.S. Trotting Association (USTA) recently issued a statement expressing its opposition to the Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2017 (officially known as H.R. 2651). The bill would lead to the creation of a private, independent horseracing anti-doping authority responsible for developing and administering a nation-wide anti-doping program for horse racing.

In short, the USTA opposes the provision in the bill requiring the elimination of race-day medications and it wants separate regulations regarding therapeutic medications for different horse breeds. The organization also took issue with the makeup of the board that would oversee the new anti-doping authority.

While the members of the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity respect the USTA's yearning for breed-specific, uniform medication rules for horse racing, the reasons for their opposition to H.R. 2651 are based on faulty arguments and a clear lack of understanding of what the bill would actually do.

First of all, there is nothing in the legislation that says it is a one-size-fits-all anti-doping policy.

The Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority (HAMCA) will work with all breeds to determine what is the best policy on therapeutics, much like United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) did when developing the World Anti-Doping Code back in the early 2000s.

This has been explained to USTA leadership by coalition members on more than one occasion.

With respect to the experience of the board, the current version of the bill will actually result in a board that has more industry and anti-doping experience than the racing commissions in many states.

Half the members of HAMCA board of directors, excluding the USADA CEO, will be drawn from people with extensive experience within the horse racing industry. In contrast, the racing commissions in numerous states are comprised of persons with no horse racing experience. Further, under H.R. 2651, for the first time, the board of a horse racing anti-doping body will be legally required to have at least half of its board of directors staffed with anti-doping experts.

H.R. 2651 specifically bars persons with commercial conflicts of interest from serving as HAMCA board members. That is vastly different than today's landscape, where active owners, breeders, trainers and jockeys are serving, or have served, as racing commissioners.

The current system is woefully inadequate and actually encourages conflict of interest. That is death knell of any legitimate anti-doping program and you don't need to look any further than the Russian doping scandal to appreciate and realize that fact.

The USTA contention that “uniformity largely exists” is absurd on its face.  If the industry had uniformity, there would be no Water Hay Oats Alliance, no Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity and, frankly, no need for H.R. 2651.

Here are the facts:

According to the Racing and Medication Testing Consortium, of the 38 Racing jurisdictions, only six states have adopted all four “pillars” of the National Uniform Medication Program (NUMP).  Six states, out of 38, is an embarrassing 17% success rate.

The number of states that have adopted three of the four is not much better: just another eight states.  With the push for uniformity through state-by-state adoption soon to enter its fifth year, pari-mutuel horse racing can ill afford to wait any longer.

Moreover, as a living document, any changes to the NUMP promise even more discord among the states as each pursues its own unique rule-making procedures. The sport, its participants and its fans all deserve better.

It's not as if adopting two out of four pillars makes a state 50% good.  Like the legs on a table, each pillar of NUMP relies on the others to make it effective on the whole.

The least adopted pillar is the uniform enforcement and penalty rules. Which leads to the question: What good is a doping program if a cheater is not worried about getting punished?

Finally, the USTA's perspective on the use of Lasix should be addressed.

The burden of proof on this issue lies squarely on opponents of the Horseracing Integrity Act, not with supporters.  This bill simply brings the U.S. into conformity with the rest of the world where use of the medication on race days is prohibited. That includes the elite international Standardbred events in France, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand, to name a few countries, as well as in this country's top trotting race, the Hambletonian.

The Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity acknowledges that the “Stronach Amendment” to the bill (which requires the elimination of race day Lasix) was added due to support from within the Thoroughbred industry. To the extent that there are differences of circumstance within the harness racing industry which may call for a varied approach to Lasix, the coalition would be pleased to address those differences with the USTA's representatives.

Barring such discussions, until and unless those questions are answered, this provision should be addressed by the anti-doping experts of the Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority (HAMCA).

For now, the USTA has opted to sit on the sidelines. The organization and its members have missed a chance to be part of the process to make the horse racing anti-doping system in this country much better.

Independent, uniform anti-doping programs work and they have shown to increase consumer confidence in a sport.

Horse racing needs to increase consumer confidence and the image of our sport if it is to grow and prosper. I am sure our colleagues in the Standardbred industry would agree.

The Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2017 is the vehicle to get us there.

Shawn Smeallie is the executive director of the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, a diverse group of horse racing and animal welfare organizations pursuing the adoption of a national, uniform standard for drugs and medication in horse racing through federal legislation.

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