What's different this time, different enough to herd the cats that refuse to be herded?
Speakers at the Jockey Club Round Table on Matters Pertaining to Racing have been calling, encouraging and hoping for change for most of the 50-plus years that this annual gathering has been going on. Whether it's uniform licensing, uniform medication rules and penalties, uniform marketing, a uniform spirit of cooperation or a uniform approach to fixing an archaic tote system, the disparate groups in this industry refuse to put on the same uniform.
So there was the death in this year's Kentucky Derby of the filly Eight Belles. There was also the admission by trainer Rick Dutrow that he routinely gave anabolic steroids (legally, it should be added) to his horses, including Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown. (Hell, it wasn't that long ago that Kentucky allowed bicarbonate loading, or milkshakes, to be given to horses.) In recent years there have been highly publicized suspensions or positive tests for medication violations of the conditioner who has won the last four Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer; the trainer of the reigning Horse of the Year; the trainer of the Kentucky Derby winner; and the trainer of the Kentucky Oaks winner. There is scientific data showing that toe grabs can increase the incidence of catastrophic injuries, yet most states still allow these racing plates to be used.
Racing has had high profile fatalities before, anabolic steroids like Winstrol have been called a therapeutic medication and advertised for years in the trade magazines, and successful trainers have been charged with medication violations. Those incidents were never enough to move the needle; why should it be any different this time?
Maybe, just maybe, it's the threat of federal intervention. People like Congressman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky are telling the industry “fix your problems or we'll fix them for you.” That's a scary thought to many. Perhaps, however, that's the only way significant change will occur.
Many (but not all) within the industry sense the serious nature of the threat and understand that change is no longer an option if we want to turn the tide of negative publicity, declining popularity and serious economic challenges. Unfortunately, the group responsible for making many of the desired changes in policies related to medication, drug testing and other regulatory matters have the least invested in the industry. These are the state regulators, the “gnomes” as former Churchill Downs CEO Tom Meeker once referred to them. In many cases they are political appointees with little or no knowledge of the racing industry and who fail to see how their myopic maneuverings negatively impact the industry's big picture.
Let's look at the establishment of drug testing laboratory standards and the possible creation of a national laboratory (or regional labs), one of the centerpieces of the Jockey Club Safety Committee recommendations announced at Sunday's Round Table. Which racing commission is going to be the first to jettison it own state college or university lab? California, New York, Florida? Which commissions will redirect funding from labs within their state to out-of-state facilities?
The makeup of the safety committee was strategically formulated by the Jockey Club. Its members include Don Dizney from Florida, John Barr from California, Kentuckians Jimmy Bell, Hiram Polk and Dell Hancock, and chairman Stuart Janney from Maryland. But will those individuals be able to convince regulators in their home states and others around them to support the committee's various recommendations?
Industry conferences, whether it's the Jockey Club Round Table, University of Arizona Symposium on Racing, or Thoroughbred Racing Association/Harness Tracks of America Simulcast Conference tend to produced short-lived enthusiasm. Does anyone remember the report Rudy Giuliani delivered on wagering integrity, less than one year after the Breeders' Cup Pick Six Scandal, at the 2003 Jockey Club Round Table? Several inches of dust have gathered on that report and on Giuliani's very specific recommendations for fixing a tote system that is hideously outdated.
The industry would not work together to address that problem, and five years later there are racetrack operators who are unconvinced that their pools are not being manipulated by past-post betting. Tote problems represent a giant accident waiting to happen.
I hope I'm wrong. It would be nice to see every state racing commission adopt uniform medication rules, including the abolition of anabolic steroids, and ban toe grabs and other racing plates that lead to catastrophic injuries. It would be productive for the various laboratories to work together instead of competing with each other. If the industry developed a national laboratory and had the funding for serious research and development, it's possible we could eradicate some of the designer drugs that are currently undetectable that many in the game feel are prevalent.
The industry has faced crises before, and it's failed to act on its own accord. What makes this crisis any different?
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