Fixing America’s Racetracks: Solving the Drug Problem Part 1

Within the past year, horse welfare has become one of the most talked about issues in the sport.  Around Kentucky Derby time last year, trainer Steve Asmussen was a topic of conversation when PETA falsely accused him and his assistant trainer of animal cruelty.  The Breeders Cup continued talks about making some of the races Lasix-free.  Keeneland announced bill, if passed, which would allow for Lasix-free races to their daily cards, possibly starting as early as next spring.  The New York Gaming Commission released new medication guidelines for the New York tracks to follow.  Frank Stronach, owner of Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park, and Pimlico, among other tracks, has pushed for stricter regulations.  Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of the Jockey Club, said at the annual round table last summer that:

Our horsemen and our customers all deserve a level playing field, with uniform rules and clean competition.  We need the national uniform medication program to be implemented in every racing state.  We need uniformity of rules and greatly improved lab standards.  We need a penalty structure that is strong enough to be a meaningful deterrent – not one that would allow a trainer to amass literally dozens of violations over the course of his career and continue training.  And we need to eliminate the use of drugs on race day.

Phipps is exactly right, especially about the last two points: strong, meaningful penalties and the elimination of race day drugs.  One of the biggest problems with the current system, besides the lack of uniformity, is the penalty system.  Here are just a few examples of penalties from various states:

  • Pennsylvania: for steroid use, first offense, horse on vet list and $500 fine; second offense, horse on vet list, $1,000 fine, and 15 day license suspension; third offense, horse on vet list, $2,500 fine, and 30 day license suspension.
  • Florida: for specific severe drug use, first offense: $500 to $1,000 fine and up to 15 day suspension of license; second offense, $1,000 to $2,000 fine, up to 60 day suspension of license, and possible revocation of license; third offense (and subsequent offenses), $2,500 to $5,000 fine, up to 180 day suspension of license, and possible revocation of license.
  • New Jersey: for phenylbutazone over 5.0 mg/mL, first offense: $500 fine and 15 day suspension of license; second and subsequent offenses: fines and penalties chosen by the New Jersey Racing Commission.
  • Illinois: for any drug violation, a fine, license suspension, or license revocation, decide by the Illinois Joint Racing Board.

There are other states like Kentucky, where the fines are much more ($10,000 or more for severe medication penalties), but are differentiated by the type of drug much more specifically than the above four states.  If you would like to read more on the medication violation penalties, refer to the racing board or gaming commission of each state.

Each of the above states have different rulings for the same or similar violation.  While, phenylbutazone, commonly known as “bute,” is not a steroid and is classified as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug.  Yet, the fines in New Jersey for over-use of phenylbutazone are relatively the same to those in Pennsylvania and Florida for steroid/severe drug use.  Seems a little off.  Illinois on the other hand, has no set penalties in the rule book; rather they will hand down penalties that they see fit.  Going back to what Phipps stated, a “uniform medication program” should be established, and that includes penalties.  Many states, like New Jersey and New York, have adopted within the last few years standards that are very similar to the national average in order to move towards uniformity.  But the penalties are still off.  One of the worst parts about the penalties is the lack of longevity.  Basically, trainers can receive many penalties, as long as they can pay the fines and maintain a stable throughout suspensions, and still continue training.  How is that program supposed to deter trainers from using illegal medications or over-using legal medications?

One such system that will be the basis of the plan to be proposed in Part Two is the one the American Quarter Horse Association uses.  The AQHA has a point system where points are received for positive tests for medications.  The points given are based on the type of drug detected (more points for more severe infractions).  As points begin to accumulate, fines are handed down as well as AQHA membership suspensions for trainers and registration suspensions for horses are given out, starting at 30 days and going up to a year.  The points stay on the record even after the suspension is served.  More severe penalties can be handed out and lead to multiple year suspension to lifetime bans.  For more information on the AQHA violation system, follow this link.  There, you will find the system, a list of suspensions handed down by the AQHA, and the violations on record for horses, trainers, and owners.

Tomorrow, I will talk about how to amend the AQHA system into one that works for thoroughbred racing.


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