Federal Intervention in the regulation of steroids in racing

On February 27th, the United States Congressional Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection conducted a day-long hearing on drugs in sports. Discussion of one of the topics, anabolic steroids in horseracing, triggered the typical, knee-jerk reaction by the horseracing industry: heaven help us if there's federal intervention.

 But anabolic steroids, which are barred in most, but not all, racing states, are just the latest red flag telling the federal government that racing cannot adequately regulate itself because of the lack of uniform medication rules. The racing industry was put on notice in 1981 that if an effective, uniform national medication policy wasn't implemented, the federal government would reluctantly step in.

There has been progress recently. In its seven-year history, the not-for-profit Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC), working with the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI), has made significant progress toward uniform medication rules. Yet today, seven of the 38 racing states in the U.S. have not adopted the RMTC's model rules, which include one on anabolic steroids.

The sad reality is that not everyone in horseracing is on the same playing field. How could they be, without uniform, national rules? Could you imagine the National Football League, the National Basketball Association or major league baseball operating under different rules from state to state?

"The federal government is not going to stand for this very long,” said Cobra Farm's Gary Biszantz, a long-time owner/breeder and former board member of the RMTC. "If they come in, they are going to ban just about everything. It's a very risky thing.”

That risk is one racing has been living with for more than three decades, ever since it allowed the anti-bleeding diuretic Lasix and the analgesic bute to infiltrate backstretches around the country. Since then, a sea of new drugs has plagued horseracing, forcing trainers to decide whether or not they will stick to the rules or chase the latest drug of choice, hoping that their veterinarians can stay one step ahead of the drug tests which would reveal their illegal presence in horses.

"The integrity of our sport is in question and has been for years,” Biszantz said. "The fans know they need two Racing Forms, one on past performances and a second on medication in the horses' system on the day he races.

"Some of them are on the cutting edge trying to get away with what they can; the others are following the rules and they can't keep up,” Biszantz continued. "All we're doing is maintaining a way to keep the veterinarians alive. Many owners have left the game because they know some trainers have an edge and others don't. The owners who stay pay a horrendous price for that.” So does anybody who loves horseracing. On August 9, 1981, speaking to industry leaders at the annual Jockey Club Round Table, the late Maryland Senator Charles "Mac” Mathias, said: "The time has come to do something about horse drugging, horse medication. My position is that the federal government should only be the regulator of last resort. It should only intervene where there is a widely perceived need for action and where no action is being taken either by the individuals in groups who are effected and involved, or lacking that, by the states. And I think there is a widespread feeling that we have that kind of situation in relation to horses.” He continued, "Right now, more than a third of the (then) 30 states with pari-mutuel betting do not restrict in any ways the use of anti-inflammatory or steroids or diuretics.”

In conclusion, Mathias said, "The choice is clearly before you and before state officials now. If you don't want the federal drug busters sniffing around your stables, then act now on your own to remove any pretext for federal intervention in your affairs. I can't say it any more simply than that. The Sport of Kings doesn't needdrugging, so let's get rid of it now.” Obviously, that message didn't hit home. "We're 27 years later and there's still no uniformity around the country,” said Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-Kentucky), who was the ranking member of the Congressional Subcommittee Hearing on drugs in sports. "There is cause for federal intervention. You go to Europe, Asia, Dubai – they have uniform rules and everyone knows what they are. I firmly believe that medication does contribute to the number of breakdowns on the track. I find that appalling. There are jockeys on every one of those horses. What kind of injuries do they face?”

In Europe, Asia, Dubai and almost all of the racing world outside of North America, there is no race-day medication allowed, period. "Around the world, we're frowned on,” Biszantz said.

He's right. Speaking at the Irish Thoroughbred Association Trade Fair & Symposium on January 24th, 2008, Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, the CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, spoke on the issue of medication as it relates to global Thoroughbred racing:

"I feel very strongly about the harmonization of medication, which I think is essential. And not being disrespectful about our colleagues in America, I am convinced that the medication approach in America will not be able to sustain itself in a much more different environment where people are much more critical. They call it good help from the vet, and it is important that we play them on a level playing field.

"Even a horse like Takeover Target, who was racing around the world before he came to Hong Kong, we found out that obviously he was on medication, an anabolic steroid. This is not in the global world acceptable. We have to have one standard. I have very strong feelings as a breeder, too. I, as a breeder, would like to know what is the real potential of the horse, and for the selection process in breeding. And therefore I think it is absolutely important from a horse welfare standpoint that we get an international racing platform to be harmonized.”

Harmony has never been a word associated with racing in the United States. Heck, for a very long time, there were two different national groups of racing commissioners. How can you achieve uniform rules when you can't even decide which group is going to be responsible for them?

The sad truth of racing in the U.S. is that each individual state operates independently of all the others. Being only human beings, each state's regulators think they've got the right answer and the others don't.

Even Alex Waldrop, the president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association who testified on behalf of Thoroughbred racing at the Congressional Subcommittee hearing, acknowledged the heart of the problem in a commentary he wrote for The Blood-Horse: "Much of what Rep. Whitfield said was hard to refute. Seven states have yet to adopt the model medication rules. Far fewer have adopted the model penalties, and 22 states have taken little or no action on the model anabolic steroid rule. That doesn't even count those jurisdictions that passed the model rules, but only after modifying them to some degree.”

During the hearing, Whitfield made it clear that if the racing industry did not adopt all model rules and penalties, including a rule banning anabolic steroids from competition, by December 31st, the federal government would.

Whitfield then asked Waldrop, "Would it be unreasonable to say if a state doesn't adopt the rules, they could lose simulcast rights as authorized in the International Horseracing Act (IHA) of 1978?”

Waldrop answered that it would not be unreasonable, and he has been asked about that response many times. In his Blood-Horse commentary, he explained, "I could not honestly say that it would be ‘unreasonable' for Congress to premise the IHA projections on the adoption of specific medication rules and penalties. Clearly, some in our industry are urging Whitfield to do just that. Is federal intervention the preferred route? The answer to that question is categorical – ‘No.'”

Waldrop explained why. "Federal intervention in medication issues shifts significant control of our industry from the states to the federal government, which has no expertise and little or no interest in effectively regulating our industry.”

Waldrop also said such a shift would increase taxation on commerce under the IHA. "Too much money is already being siphoned off our industry by antiquated, state government-imposed excise taxes – money the RMTC would rather see spent on research and testing by the states,” he wrote. "Federal intervention might force uniformity, but at a price our industry cannot afford.”

The obvious solution would be all racing states adopting the model rules proposed by the RMTC/RCI.

The conclusion of Waldrop's commentary is simple, yet chilling: "As long as states drag their feet in adopting the RMTC/RCI model rules, federal intervention is a real possibility. We in horse racing are faced with a simple choice: we can move with purpose and resolve to gain national adoption of the model rules as put forth by RMTC and RCI following broad scientific and regulatory input from the industry, or we can delay implementation and await the very real possibility of federal intervention. Given this choice, the time to pass the model rules – including the anabolic steroid rule – is now.”

But that call to action has been made many times without unifying the industry. Nobody is more aware of that than RMTC Executive Director Scot Waterman, who has piloted the RMTC since its inception. "On the face of it, we should have uniform rules, but the devil is in the details,” he said. "I'm not trying to apologize for the industry. That's just the way it is.”

That's the way it's been for decades.  Mathias' speech at the 1981 Round Table was dovetailed around proposed legislation which would have rocked horseracing. Called the Corrupt Practices in Horseracing Act, the bill would have banned the use of all drugs in horses, as well as nerving, numbing and freezing. "State racing commissioners descended on Senator Mathias' office after that speech, and they assured him 27 years ago that they were going to address the problems, that they were going to crack down on the use of these drugs in racing,” Whitfield said at the hearing. "Here we are 27 years later, and not much has changed.”

Maybe the only way to change racing is by federal intervention. Time is running out.

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