Medication Oversight: Clean Sport Should Be the Goal

by | 05.02.2013 | 8:31am

There is no grander event in American horse racing than the Kentucky Derby, and it is critically important for the Derby to have a fair and level playing field for every one of its participants. It is a fundamental right for the horses and their connections, and something that will keep this great racing tradition alive and well for many years to come.

Those rights extend to the wagering public, which will bet more than $130 million on Saturday's Run for the Roses. They must have confidence that the race is fair and the participants are free of performance enhancing drugs.

Travis Tygart, who will forever be known as the man who busted Lance Armstrong, one of the sporting world's all-time biggest cheaters, spoke about athletic rights during last year's Jockey Club Round Table Conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He was talking about human athletics, but it applies to horse racing, too.

“For one individual athlete to agree to a set of rules, to be robbed, literally, by someone else who doesn't abide by those rules is an injustice,” Tygart said. “It's a travesty. We think it's the biggest injustice that exists in sport.”

Tygart is the chief executive officer of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, a private, non-profit organization created in 2000 to help clean up the mess that had plagued the Olympics due to the use of performance-enhancing substances.

The Olympics weren't alone. Baseball around the turn of the century had become almost laughable because of the doping-enhanced home run records being set by the likes of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa. And cycling, of course, would become the poster child for cheating, with Lance Armstrong winning the first of his now-vacated seven consecutive Tour de France titles in 1999.

Since then, Olympic medals have been stripped from disgraced stars like Marion Jones, and some of Major League Baseball's most cherished records are looked upon with embarrassment because of the way they were achieved. Lance Armstrong's reputation has been completely destroyed. Efforts to clean up sports and restore the inherent rights of its participants have been led by Tygart and the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which only last year had been attacked by a Wisconsin Congressman with concocting a “novel conspiracy theory” against Armstrong.

Tygart and USADA are being called upon again, this time by New Mexico's U.S. Sen. Udall, who will be co-sponsoring (with Reps. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania) new legislation, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2013.

(To read a draft of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2013, click here.)

If that sounds familiar, it should. Udall co-sponsored legislation two years ago that had a similar name. That bill went nowhere, despite hearings on Capitol Hill and the field that identified serious doping problems in our sport.

Udall listened to criticism, much of which centered on the inefficiency of the federal government to regulate something like horseracing. He rewrote the legislation, moving proposed responsibility for oversight of horseracing's medication rules and regulations from the Federal Trade Commission to USADA.

The draft of the bill calls for USADA, within one year of passage, to develop, publish and maintain rules for both prohibited substances and treatments and permitted substances and treatments for racehorses. Those rules would include guidelines for use of acceptable medications and withdrawal times. Unlike the previous bill, this is not an all-out ban on drugs in horses.

The bill imposes a ban on medication within 24 hours of a race, with the exception of anti-bleeder medication furosemide, for which there is a two-year transition or phase-out. That transition is limited to 3-year-olds and up, in accordance with RCI model rules and within a veterinary-client-patient relationship.

The bill calls for USADA to consult with racing commissions, tracks, horsemen's groups and others to develop these rules, and to develop programs for education, research, testing, and adjudication of the regulations.

It also includes provisions for penalties: a one-and-done license revocation for the most serious offenses and a three-strikes-and-you're-out rule for lesser violations. However, if someone who has been caught cheating agrees to cooperate with investigators, they may receive reduced penalties. That is an interesting inclusion in light of the fact that it took a similar rule in human athletics to crack the Lance Armstrong curtain of silence among his cycling teammates. Baseball, which continues to be plagued by scandals involving performance-enhancing drugs, has no such rule in its collective agreement with the players' union.

The teeth of the bill once again relies on interstate wagering, which falls under the authorization of the federal government's Interstate Horseracing Act. To conduct wagering across state lines, racing associations would have to have the consent of USADA and agreements on terms, conditions, rules, and payments to the agency to fund the expenses of the various programs.

No costs shall by paid by the federal government, which currently provides about $9 million annually to USADA.

Its last tax filing, 2011, shows that Colorado Springs, Colo.-based USADA has an annual budget of $13.8 million, including $5.2 million in salaries (topped by the total compensation package of $364,464 for Tygart). It does not come close to testing the number of samples currently screened for therapeutic drug overages and illegal drugs in horse racing by various labs around the United States. This legislation would require considerable growth by USADA to take on the responsibility for regulating drugs in horse racing.

There were immediate concerns from some horse racing organizations that the legislation is unnecessary. Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, said in a statement that turning over medication regulation to USADA could weaken the movement toward a cleaner sport less reliant on medication and suggested the federal government should consider giving some of USADA's $9 million to horse racing organizations.

What Martin isn't saying is that he and many others would have much of their power and influence neutralized or vacated by USADA.

Leaders of The Jockey Club, National Thoroughbred Racing Association, and Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association cited recent progress toward state regulatory acceptance of model rules that reduce the number of permitted drugs in racing. Still, uniformity of drug rules and penalties across state lines remains an unachieved goal after decades of trying by various regulatory agencies and industry groups. The quality of laboratories and collaboration among the chemists is also a longstanding concern, despite efforts to move forward on an accreditation process.

Will the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2013 gain any more traction than its predecessor? That's hard to say at this stage, although it doesn't take much to kill legislation that is not a high priority in Congress. A powerful legislator like Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the Senate's Minority Leader, could probably stop this bill if he wanted to.

But there's a lot more to like and a lot less to dislike about the current proposal than the 2011 version. A level playing field and a clean sport should be the goal for all of us. USADA has a proven track record of cleaning up sports that had become corrupted by performance enhancing drugs.

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