Having been involved as a lobbyist in many policy debates in Washington for several years, I consider it a rare gift when a major court case strongly confirms your side of an argument.
It is rarer still when those on the losing side double down and wait for more of the same.
That is the case with the conviction last week of Penn National horse trainer Murray Rojas in Pennsylvania, as widely covered in the Paulick Report.
For anyone who might have missed it, Rojas, 51, of Grantville, Pennsylvania, was convicted last week by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania of 14 felony counts of misbranding prescription drugs on race day and conspiracy.
According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney's Office, the crimes involved Rojas directing veterinarians to administer drugs to her horses on race day in violation of track rules and state law.
Furthermore, Dr. Mary Robinson, the acting director of the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory (PETRL), an RMTC-accredited lab that conducts drug testing on all Pennsylvania racetracks, testified that the lab did not have tests for certain drugs and that it did not test for every drug every day.
For supporters of uniform and independent anti-doping testing, this is yet another sad confirmation of all that we have been contending for several years. Lax control at the state racing commission level, the ability for trainers and equine practitioners to flaunt and game the system for years on end without penalty or at least meaningful punishment, and the blind eye turned by regulatory officials, veterinarians, track owners and horsemen's associations all made this episode inevitable.
For those resisting real reform of racing's broken anti-doping system, this should be a loud wakeup call for you. Federal prosecutors are always looking for a prosecutorial blueprint. You can be sure that word of these convictions has spread throughout the U.S. Attorney community.
Cheaters now must realize and think long and carefully about breaking rules when the punishment will be hard time in a federal facility rather than the usual slap on the wrist from a friendly state regulator.
Trainers and vets – is that a risk you are willing to take?
We have seen what happened in the Rojas case. We are naïve to think it is not happening in other areas.
So, we can continue to let one-off law enforcement deal with it, which is likely to happen now given the magnitude of this situation, or we can enact a real uniform program to deter this behavior so that our sport survives and thrives.
A safer bet would be the implementation of a new model of medication regulation. That could be best achieved if all horse racing stakeholders support H.R. 2651, also known as the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017, recently introduced by Reps. Andy Barr (R-KY) and Paul Tonko (D-NY).
The bill would establish an independent horse racing anti-doping authority with responsibility for developing and administering a nationwide anti-doping program for all of horse racing.
That authority would be created by the independent United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), a non-profit, non-governmental agency that has a proven track record of creating uniform standards for drug testing and performance enhancing drugs for our Olympic athletes.
USADA would create the Horse Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority (HADA), which would be overseen by a board of directors composed of USADA appointees and horse racing industry appointees and would have exclusive jurisdiction over anti-doping matters for all of racing. Nothing more, nothing less.
Why should owners, trainers, veterinarians, racetrack operators, regulatory officials and horsemen's associations support this bill?
The brazen nature of Ms. Rojas' crimes and the conspiratorial nature of the network that enabled her and her equine practitioners will be just too inviting not to pursue in other venues.
Anyone who enjoys or participates in this sport should welcome this sea change. But trainers who cheat often or occasionally should be extremely worried. The broad brush of justice can and will sweep up all levels of sinners.
A joint USADA/industry HADA is the most logical approach, and, unfortunately, the only one that has any chance of working.
I know this will work, because I have seen it work before.
In the 2000s, athletes and trainers in track & field, cycling and swimming knew how to cheat without detection, and the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), which had responsibilities to both market and regulate those sports, faced the dilemma of prosecuting some of sport's most high-profile athletes.
Fortunately, leaders of the Olympic movement realized that something had to be done, and for the good of the sport, they acted.
USOC courageously allowed the creation of an independent anti-doping organization – USADA – and gave it anti-doping authority over all USOC-recognized sport national governing bodies, their athletes, and events.
Basically, the USOC willingly gave up control, and they have not looked back.
As a result, within a few short years, USADA became the anti-doping gold standard of the world, and U.S. athletes are now considered far and away the cleanest in the world.
Detractors of H.R. 2651 often ask, “Why would we want to invite the federal government into our world?”
If we're being honest, we already have. The industry currently survives totally and completely on the Congressional gift of the Interstate Horseracing Act.
Fortunately, under the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017, the federal government will not be funding HADA, or be actively involved in HADA's day-to-day activities; it will only mandate HADA's existence and provide very limited oversight. As a stand-alone private entity, HADA will be the single rulemaking and enforcement authority for all of U.S. horseracing.
But there is another aspect of government involvement that the industry definitely does NOT want to encourage: prosecutions by the Department of Justice. That is unquestionably the worst kind of federal involvement. That is the current wolf at the door.
Unless the last holdouts for anti-doping reform – trainers, equine practitioners, state commissioners, racetracks – get behind the Horseracing Integrity Act, the industry will get more of the same: bad headlines, ruined careers, and further reputational drag on the industry.
The warning shot has been sent. Congress, which will soon consider the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017, will no doubt take notice of this case in Pennsylvania and it will make lawmakers more likely to act.
It would be far better to follow the lead of the USOC and embrace a workable solution than to have one thrust upon us.
We should all support this legislation for the good of the sport.
Shawn Smeallie is executive director of the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, a broad-based alliance of organizations seeking the adoption of a national, uniform standard for drugs and medication in horse racing. He has extensive experience on Capitol Hill, the Executive Branch, and in the private sector and has worked on defense, trade, energy, tax, and environmental issues over the course of his 20 years in Washington, D.C. He was born and raised near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and has owned Thoroughbreds in various partnerships through the years.
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