My suggestion last week that federal legislation is the best approach to changing medication rules in horse racing, including a phase-out on the race-day use of the anti-bleeder drug furosemide, was widely panned by people on both sides of this issue.
Comments ranging from “Congress doesn't care about horse racing” to “You're a buffoon” to “We won't give up the anti-Lasix fight just because believers in the status quo want us to” did everything except explain to me how furosemide, better known as Lasix, will be phased out under the current state regulatory structure.
Let me clarify a few things.
I agree, first of all, that Congress has bigger issues to deal with right now, especially before the first of the year with the so-called “fiscal cliff” looming. But there are more than a few people in Congress who can be convinced to care about an issue that involves gambling, animal welfare, and perceived corruption or mistreatment of animals.
Federal legislation filed in 2011 to amend the Interstate Horseracing Act and eliminate all drugs in racing will expire with the new Congress, but sponsors Tom Udall, a New Mexico Senator, and Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield are not going to give up on this issue. And the series of articles in the New York Times (which haven't run their course yet, by the way), along with the revelations from the New York Task Force report on the Aqueduct fatalities earlier this year, and the dermorphin scandal in multiple states, are all fodder for some Congressional grandstanding.
If leaders in the horse industry, rather than fight Udall and Whitfield, work with them to develop an acceptable bill that would amend the Interstate Horseracing Act to include national rules on medication, testing and penalties, there is a far better chance of passage than there is to get racing commissions in the major states to agree on model rules.
Yes, I know, there are some who claim we already have “near uniformity” on medication rules in major states. I guess that depends on two things: what constitutes a “major state,” and what the definition of “near uniformity” is.
Fact is, there are plenty of differences now in medication, drug testing and enforcement guidelines, and articles like the one this past weekend in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (click here) help demonstrate just how inadequate regulation is in at least one racing state I certainly consider “major” – Florida.
It was recently brought to my attention that another racing state that I consider “major,” Pennsylvania, has been allowing race-day furosemide administration in 2-year-olds despite a clearly-worded state regulation against it. The commission said it will start enforcing that rule in 2013. Furthermore, as some states move to push use of a drug like clenbuterol 21 days out before a race, Pennsylvania allows its administration 48 hours before a race. That's not uniformity. And Florida and Pennsylvania are from being the only states that have widely differing rules and penalties related to medication.
There are medical miracle workers saddling horses and winning races at mystifying percentages at tracks throughout the United States. Lasix isn't turning a 5% trainer into a 30% winning machine. It's lax regulation, inadequate security, and aggressive medication treatments – which can border on illegal or jump way over the line – that are transforming some of these horsemen into super trainers.
There is so much work to do on these and other issues, and though (to answer another critic's charge) I may be a buffoon, I am smart enough to know that state racing commissions have failed the industry and will continue to fail the industry.
Example: the New York State Racing and Wagering Board is just now getting around to regulations on shock-wave therapy, which can numb the pain in a horse for several days after it's been treated. This is not new. Ten years ago, at the 2002 Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (where I'm sure some State Racing and Wagering Board members were in attendance), the potential danger of shock-wave therapy to horse and rider were highlighted, and it's been discussed in many other forums since then. Why, then, has it taken 10 years for the New York board to get around to regulating its use?
There is some progress being made in keeping private veterinarians out of the stalls of horses on race day, but it's slow going and far from universal. The well-publicized missteps made in Kentucky by veterinarians hired by the horse racing commission to give Lasix shots are unfortunate and have been seized upon by trainers who want to continue the practice of having their own vet go into the stall and treat the horse. It's mystifying to me why the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has sat on some news about violations of race-day drug administrations by a private vet that would explain why this rule is necessary.
I'm not suggesting those who want to eliminate race-day Lasix should give up – only that there might be more important issues that can be achieved in the short term, and that federal legislation may be the best long-term strategy for uniform rules on medication.
Finally, the Breeders' Cup can do what it wants to do on Lasix – to a point. Its policy for 2013 at Santa Anita Park is to ban race-day Lasix in all of its championship races, no matter what the state regulations permit. To simulcast Breeders' Cup races across state lines, however, they'll need horsemen's consent, in this case from the Thoroughbred Owners of California. They'll need similar simulcast contract approval from horsemen in Kentucky when the Breeders' Cup returns to Churchill Downs, and from Florida horsemen if Frank Stronach manages to bring the event back to Gulfstream Park. (Only New York horsemen are exempt from approval, based on the Interstate Horseracing Act language.)
Have I suggested those who want to reform American racing's medication rules raise the white flag and give up trying to eliminate race-day drugs? No. Only that they focus on a one-time, national solution that will put an end to the increasingly failed efforts of the state regulatory structure.
Racing stopped being an insular, state or local industry when simulcasting took off in the 1980s. Interstate wagers now account for the overwhelming majority of bets placed on 21st Century horse races. It's time we have national solutions reflecting that reality.
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