Horsemen and horseplayers reacted with hope tinged with a healthy dose of skepticism to the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015, a new piece of bipartisan legislation introduced last Thursday, which seeks to enact unified medication standards and policies in an industry said to be so lacking in this area.
The act, which was introduced by Congressmen Andy Barr (R-Ky.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), the co-chairs of the Congressional Horse Caucus, seeks to establish an independent, nongovernmental, anti-doping authority to establish a uniform, national standard governing the use of medications in racehorses, according to a press release.
Citing the “fractured” set of rules governing racing in 38 separate jurisdictions, the bill’s sponsors introduced the Integrity Act by stating, “We must tear down the silos that divide the industry and replace the existing state-by-state system of conflicting and inconsistent rules with a national, uniform medication program that facilitates interstate commerce, promotes safety, and enhances public confidence in the integrity of the sport.”
The news was met by both hope and skepticism by Thoroughbred industry thought-leaders, who spoke with Off Track Thoroughbreds about their gut reaction to the Act. On the positive side, the effort marked a good first step in helping to “clean up racing so it can be the thriving wonderful sport it is,” says John Moore, CEO and President of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, and co-owner of M and M Thoroughbred Partners. He owns the racing partnership with his wife Susan.
“This has been the Wild, Wild West of United States racing, and it has long needed a sheriff to come in and straighten things out.” Moore says, noting that the bipartisan effort is a “step in the right direction.”
His hope is that any new law demanding racing integrity would be a well-funded effort that would root out bad trainers who flout doping laws, which in turn increases the safety of the sport for horses and jockeys, and the integrity of the sport for horseplayers.
Len Friedman, a successful horseplayer, partner in The Ragozin Sheets, a race-day publication, author and contributor to the New York Times blog The Rail, says the jury’s still out for how effective the Integrity Act would be. “I’m skeptical that one central body can solve the problem,” Friedman says. “For one thing, there has to be a way to distinguish between an individual positive (for drugs) and a pattern of positives. The only way you can do that is by freezing samples and keeping them for a long period of time.” Friedman’s point: it will take money and serious enforcement to weed the trainers guilty of heavy doping infringements out of the sport.
Through the years, he’s seen those trainers riding the pinnacle of success, the “miracle trainers” who get miraculous results from horses who failed in other hands. “These trainers are the ones who have horses who, in the middle of the stretch when all the other horses are getting tired, are getting a second wind,” he explains. “Drugging has been going on since I started handicapping in the 60s.”
In his opinion, there are relatively few trainers in the sport who are flouting doping laws; perhaps 50 nationwide, he estimates. “The problem is that they win a lot of races, which means the owners have more money, and they have a disproportionate effect on the jurisdiction they’re in,” he says. “This isn’t limited to big-money places like New York and California. There’s people in all racing venues … would a central agency ensure it wouldn’t happen, would it help? I’m not convinced.”
Nor is Kentucky horseman Ann Banks convinced that a central governing body will be a cure-all.
“First and foremost, I understand the excitement that everybody has for this (Integrity Act),” Banks says. “Everybody understands that there has to be a level playing field, and a uniformity in medication. But, I’m concerned about establishing a uniform entity that will be taking away all the power from the states.
Further concern centers on the cost of such a board. “They have no funds for this, and they’re saying they’re going to get loans, donations, and they’re going to charge each state on a monthly basis a fee for every racing start,” she says. “Where are the racing commissions going to get that money?”
Though excited that the concept of racing integrity and uniformity has reached the highest levels, her concerns also take her to the controversial issue of Lasix, a drug used therapeutically in racehorses to prevent bleeding. “I’m concerned this is a backdoor way to get to the Lasix issue, and I am very supportive of allowing Lasix use,” she says. “I’ve dedicated my life to humane horsemanship and horse-friendly racing. Lasix is a humane, therapeutic drug, and not a performance enhancer.”
Jan Vandebos of RanJan Racing of California saw the Integrity Act more positively.
Like Banks and Moore, Vandebos adds her name to the list of horsemen who support the continued use of Lasix, a drug used to prevent bleeding in racehorses.
But, she is more optimistic about the possible impact of the Integrity Act.
“They’re trying to create some uniformity across the country,” Vandebos says. “Right now, the way it works is that if a horse runs in California and then ships to Kentucky, we’re dealing with different medication rules,” which could prohibit the same horse from running in both states. “If we had uniformity, the trainers would all know where they stand, and what they can use, and that’s positive.”
And for Vandebos, the best possible outcome would be that trainers who break doping rules would be exposed, and ultimately driven out of the Sport of Kings.
“I think it’s going to help the horses, the owners and the breeders. That’s just my opinion,” she says. “The business needs to get cleaned up. I don’t think a lot of young people (will be attracted to the sport of racing) if we don’t take care of these horses.”