Tick, Tick, Tick. It could be the sound of the countdown for the Feds jumping into medication oversight and tough enforcement.
But in the run up to the Belmont Stakes that sound was actually the scathing "60 Minutes Sports" segment that aired on the Showtime network on the pervasive drug problems in thoroughbred racing.
Travis Tygart-- the man who dropped the hammer on professional cyclist Lance Armstrong-- stated the use of performance enhancing drugs in American horse racing has reached a critical point. Tygart heads the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which has been approached by both Congress and the racing industry to clean up the sport. Will he take action?
“I think it’s down to the wire,” remarked Tygart.
Congressman Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania is co-author of a bill to restore integrity and safety to horse racing. Pitts introduced the bill last spring, and since then, it has been in committees awaiting a chance to be voted on by the full House.
"It's an industry that has, for years, pledged to clean things up," said Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, who sponsored the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. "But things seem to be getting worse, not better."
Tygart says if the bill is passed the agency will be ready to regulate drug use in racing and enforce penalties. He pointed to the World Anti-Doping Agency that turned around the U.S. Olympic Team program 14 years ago. They created a uniform code in an open and transparent process. Today, it's been adopted by 520 sporting organizations and 172 governments.
“I think if you listen to the industry, the drug problem has got to be a 10 (on a scale of 1 to 10)," Tygart added. "Many worry it’s undermining the sport’s image, harming the breeding process and putting riders and horses at risk. There is tremendous pressure to use drugs to win in a multi-billion dollar business in which there is no national uniform code to control drug use nor a governing body or commissioner to rein it in. The temptations are through the roof in this sport.”
In the Showtime segment reporter Armen Keteyian also spoke with Phillip Hanrahan who heads the 29,000-member National Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association. He steadfastly claimed there isn’t a drug problem in his industry, pointing to 368,980 drug tests taken between 2009 and 2012 in which 99.2 percent of the horses passed.
"The industry does a good job of policing itself," Hanrahan declared. "Could it be improved? Sure. But it’s not the Wild, Wild West picture that some would have you believe.”
Thirty eight states operate horse racing tracks and work under 38 distinct sets of rules.
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has adopted a set of uniform rules and is pushing state legislatures, racing commissions and other regulatory bodies to pass them in the individual states. So far, 19 states have passed or are considering a rule that would remove all controlled substances except for Lasix — a diuretic known to improve horses' performance — from racing, and standardize testing for the other drugs. Eight states have passed another rule that standardizes a penalty structure for trainers who violate drug rules.
"The lack of uniformity and strict enforcement has created huge loopholes, where, if you're playing by the rules, you're at a competitive disadvantage," Tygart said.
Thoroughbred owner Bill Casner has been outspoken in the drive to curb the use of race day drugs.
“Our racing industry thrived in a time prior to permitted race day medications," Casner said. "Horses raced often and consistently. We are a global industry and we are out of step with the rest of the world. Race day medications are a failed experiment and it is time for us to do what is right for our horses and our industry.”
Comprehensive changes coming
A typical morning at a U. S. racetrack will find packs of veterinarians driving around the backside with a truck stuffed with a plethora of "legal medications" with little regulation or oversight. It's a backside culture that has dubious benefit to a horse and runs up a vet bill. Some of the medications have led to countless injuries, ailments and gruesome breakdowns as well as the sudden equine death syndrome.
So what's the solution? A large and growing number of prominent Thoroughbred owners and trainers have voluntarily pledged to make available to the public veterinary records of their horses competing in graded stakes races in the United States and Canada. The records will create much needed transparency, covering the 14-day period preceding and including the day of each race. They will be available to the public on the day of the race at least two hours prior to post time.
That pledge followed closely on the heels of a recent proposal by Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of The Jockey Club, suggesting that the veterinary records for every horse entered in this year’s Triple Crown races be made available as a means to bring greater credibility and integrity to racing at a time when millions are watching.
“The outpouring of support for this initiative has been dramatic, and this is just a preliminary list of those who have stepped forward in the past few days,” Phipps said. “I commend each of the owners and trainers for taking a bold step to enhance the image of our sport, and it is our sincere hope that other owners and trainers will soon adopt this voluntary practice as well.”
A firestorm was unleashed in mid-March when PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) released an undercover video tape that showed Steve Asmussen's top assistant trainer, Scott Blasi, subjecting the barn's horses to cruel and injurious treatments, and administering drugs to them for nontherapeutic purposes. A front page story appeared in the New York Times. It spurred both the troubling Showtime segment and a similar report on HBO's "Real Sports."
The undercover PETA investigator worked for Asmussen for four months in the spring and summer of 2013 at Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course. Among the drugs administered for nontherapeutic purposes was Thyro-L, given without any type of diagnosis with its sole purpose to make young horses more precocious and elevate metabolism. "Hyper" is the way Blasi described it in the PETA video. Used repeatedly over months Thyro-L can cause bone loss and thyroid gland atrophication, which will eventually cause serious illness to the horse.
An investigation is ongoing of Asmussen and Blasi by state and federal authorities over the accusations. Asmussen ranks second all-time in wins in North America and fifth in purse earnings. He was a candidate for the Hall of Fame but in April was removed from the ballot by National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame officials.
Over the past six years there have been four congressional hearings about drug use in the sport. One Derby-winning trainer, Rick Dutrow Jr., (Big Brown in 2008) was banned for 10 years for repeated drug violations. Another, Doug O’Neill, (I’ll Have Another, 2012) served a drug-related suspension shortly after the Triple Crown races.
Prominent owners united
Among those who jumped at signing the pledge to turn over veterinary records was Wilmington's Rick Porter whose Fox Hill Farm has produced some of the sport's top performers over the past decade including Round Pond, Hard Spun, Eight Belles, Joyful Victory and 2012 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace. After years of starts and stops Porter sees the solution for meaningful reform coming through Federal legislation that gives central governance for drug oversight and tough enforcement.
"If you watched that Showtime segment the National HBPA representative did not come across in his interview too honestly, in my opinion," said Porter. "Mr. Tygart, the USADA representative, came across as the real deal. He thinks cheating in racing is a 10 (on a scale of 1-10). One of the commentators said that only boxing is considered worse in regards to cheating than horse racing.
"Right now we have a group of strong owners who have come together to solve this medication problem and make racing the way it was 50-60 years ago," Porter continued. "We will bring about a central authority with a commissioner and be like all the other major sports. Testing will change. The way drugs can get on the backside will change. The vets will be accountable and employees of the race track.
"It will be similar to the Hong Kong model of racing. Their racing is considered as honest and transparent as any in the world. Our group of owners will make this happen. It is just a matter of time. We have a whole different approach this time. We have very strong owners helping our movement. We have experienced, well known outsiders who will help us achieve this goal. Stay tuned. We are on the march and will not stop until the job is done."
One of the most powerful players in this movement is Frank Stronach who owns Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita, Golden Gate, Laurel, and Pimlico racetracks. He said he will seek to put in place house rules that would require owners to release their vet records to track officials and have them examined by an independent team of veterinarians.
“Now more than ever, we as track operators, horsemen and regulators must come together to do everything we can to prevent any abuse of our Thoroughbred athletes,” said Stronach, also a breeder and owner.
Stronach has also come up with one of the most intriguing-- and naturally-- most controversial ideas. He suggests the creation of ontrack pharmacies that will be responsible for buying and dispensing every dose of medication administered to every horse on racetrack grounds.
Supporters of sweeping medication reform heartily embrace the idea, saying that an ontrack dispensary will bring an end to a practice that many critics of veterinary medicine refer to as “injecting the shed row.” Supporters also contend that a pharmacy will make it harder for veterinarians and trainers to keep and administer illegal drugs on the racetrack, since any medical substance in a barn or vet truck that wasn’t dispensed by the pharmacy will be prohibited.
It's modeled on racing policies in Hong Kong, where all medications administered to racehorses require a prescription from a pharmacy owned by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which regulates every aspect of racing and training. But racing in Hong Kong differs greatly compared to the U.S. Hong Kong’s two tracks hold approximately 750 races a year for 1,500 horses. With such a small number of races for such a relatively large population of horses, the Hong Kong Jockey Club can afford to require horses to meet the most stringent physical standards before running.
In addition, the Hong Kong horse population is self-contained – all horses race and train at Hong Kong Jockey Club facilities. In the U.S., horses ship in from multiple locations on race day, so under the proposed Stronach rules, there would be two standards for care – a veterinarian treating a horse offtrack will not be constrained by the racetrack rule that limits the care a veterinarian can provide to a horse stabled at a Stronach track.
The Water, Hay, and Oats Alliance welcomes oversight from USADA, viewing it as the only way to right racing's badly listing ship. Founded in 2010 by a grassroots movement of like minded individuals, WHOA supports the passage of federal legislation to prohibit the use of performance enhancing drugs in horse racing. Here's a statement from the organization:
"We believe widespread use of race day medication in American racing is destroying public confidence, defrauding the betting fan, weakening the genetic pool and, most importantly, putting life and limb of our equine athletes and their jockeys at risk. It is obvious that after years of committee review and discussion, America’s racing industry cannot police itself by eliminating the proliferation of performance enhancing drugs in our sport, nor does it possess the power to adequately punish the purveyors of these drugs."
Among WHOA supporters and sponsors from our region are Franny Abbott, Betty Moran, Jonathan Sheppard, Graham Motion, Michael Matz, Phyllis Wyeth and George Strawbridge, Jr.
Strawbridge, 77, has been deeply involved in Thoroughbred racing for most of his life. His green and white Augustin Stable silks are familiar on both sides of the Atlantic with a parade of top-notch flat runners. In 2011, as the Thoroughbred Club of America’s Honor Guest, he noted that American Thoroughbred racing has become associated with “sinister substances mixed in a black bag” and called for reform.
“Emulating the success model of the rest of the world would be a big start toward respecting the star of our sport,” Strawbridge told the Thoroughbred Racing Commentary website. “We need to stop treating the Thoroughbred as a commodity and start showing the public and our fans that we care and are a clean and legitimate sport.”
In 2012, Strawbridge resigned his membership in the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) to protest a decision by TOBA’s American Graded Stakes Committee to delay implementing a proposed ban on race-day medications for juveniles in graded stakes.
"I don't win as many races (as other owners)," Strawbridge said with a laugh. "My horses go to a non-drug trainer, like Graham Motion, Jonathan Sheppard or Michael Matz. That’s what I do. Some other owners would say, 'Their win percentages are way less than 20 percent, so I’m not going to do that.’ But if you look at the rest of the world, racing isn't so much a business as a sport.
“The reason I’m in the racing game is because of this noble animal. I love the breeding, I love seeing them grow up from little babies to yearlings to two-year-olds, and I love to see them as two-year-olds, three-year-olds, four-year-olds, and five-year-olds in training. I just love it.”