“[Without an out-of-competition testing program with teeth, you won’t have a real anti-doping program]”
— Dr. Rick Arthur, Equine Medical Director for California
There can be little doubt that the wide-spread perception of drugging racehorses is the biggest challenge facing the sport. The New York State Gaming Commission has apparently decided it is not going to do anything to correct that impression.
I have obtained records from the Commission – the government agency responsible for ensuring compliance with anti-doping regulations – going back to January 1, 2014. According to the records given to me, there has never been a thoroughbred horse that tested positive under the state’s out-of-competition testing “program.” In four and one-half years during which tens of thousands of thoroughbreds raced in New York, not a single one had a positive test.
Out-of-competition testing is not to be confused with the standard post-race testing that occurs following every race for some of the entrants. Rather, OOCT is done at random, at tracks and off-track facilities, to identify illegal drugs that may not show up in the post-race test, or for which existing post-race testing is inadequate. Surprise is an essential component of an effective program since it makes it more difficult for cheaters to hide their conduct.
There are numerous industry leaders – usually the heads of organizations representing horsemen and horsewomen – who cite the statistics on post-race positive tests as proof that there is not a doping problem in racing. That testing yields a positive rate of less than one per cent. If that is the only thing looked at, they would be correct that drugging horses is not an issue.
But I have rarely met anyone not paid by a racing organization who believes that significant drugging is not a serious concern. That includes trainers, professional horse people, owners, bettors and fans. A survey of those knowledgeable about the sport would quickly produce a list of trainers on any racing circuit who are suspected of illegally drugging their horses. Suspicions are meaningless, of course, unless there is supportive evidence.
The 2011 Jockey Club Round Table featured a report from McKinsey & Company that highlighted the significant negative impression of the sport by both the general public and even racing fans. According to the report, only “22% of the general public has a positive impression of Thoroughbred racing.” Perhaps even more disturbing is that among racing fans, “just 46% … would recommend their friends” follow the sport.
At the 2016 Round Table, a slide presentation referenced a survey in which 69 per cent of respondents identified “drugs” as a “very important” issue and 66 per cent cited “integrity issues.” McKinsey is returning to this year’s Round Table and, if I were a betting man, I would not think there will be a drop in those numbers.
The perception of doping is never a good thing for any sport. While baseball has made significant strides – as a result of out-of-competiton testing – it is still feeling the effects of the “steroid era” when the annual Hall of Fame balloting sparks yet another discussion of whether those who drugged should be denied admission.
The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has significantly cleaned up the drug abuse in cycling, American track and field, and other sports. This would be the same USADA that some racing leaders think does not have the capability to bring horse racing to a comparable level of respect.
While the United States is a leader in the testing of human athletes, it is woefully behind the rest of the major horse racing jurisdictions in the world according to Joe Gorajc, writing in thoroughbredracing.com. In the United Kingdom, France and Hong Kong, out-of-competition testing represents between ten and fifteen per cent of all testing. The comparable figure in the United States is two per cent.
New York is but a portion of that two percent, but nonetheless is aware fully of the importance of out-of-competition testing in identifying illegal drugs that may not show up in post-race testing. In explaining its reason for adopting OOCT regulations in 2012, the state cited the significance of the rule for enhancing the integrity of racing and the safety of horses:
“Doping agents with these traits are posing a great threat to racing integrity. They threaten the integrity of athletic competitions by having an affect [sic] on race performance that cannot be forecast by the betting public, and that gains an unfair advantage over other horsemen and owners.… When used by healthy competitors, they have the capacity to create dangerous and unfair abilities to perform.”
But, New York’s record on OOCT is nothing short of abysmal. I have twice been provided with records in response to requests for public records going back to 2014. A total of 10 harness horses tested positive. There were no positive tests for thoroughbreds.
That, of course, would be a remarkable record for a sport in cleaning up illegal use of medications. But we do not know how many horses were tested. The Gaming Commission’s Director of Communications informed me that New York does not maintain records on the number of horses that were tested and the number of negative tests. So the agency responsible for ensuring the integrity of racing does not keep track of its own performance in reducing illegal doping.
This is particularly disturbing since it did have such records as recently as 2016. In that year, there were “approximately” 1,100 samples taken, of which 21 came back positive. (I had requested records going back to January 1, 2014. In October, 2016, the Commission gave me records of six positives, all occurring in March of that year and all for harness horses. I assume the discrepancy between 21 and 6 can be explained by positives detected after the response to my request for records.)
It is not clear why the Gaming Commission would abandon the collection of data that would be essential information in assessing the success of its efforts in reducing illegal doping. That is, of course, if they are truly doing anything significant, about which I have serious doubts.
One aspect of their program is that they test horses that are entered in Grade I races with a purse of $1 million or more. Of course, everyone knows that they purport to conduct OOCT for such races, so only a complete fool would not plan around what may take place. An essential component of an effective program is the element of surprise, which the Gaming Commission has effectively eliminated for those races.
In my first request for public records, the Commission denied statistical information because records need not be disclosed if “compiled for law enforcement purposes and which, if disclosed, would … reveal criminal investigative techniques or procedures….”
The reasoning underlying this exemption to the public records law is solid: drug cheaters “could evade detection by deliberately tailoring their conduct in anticipation of avenues of inquiry to be pursued by agency personnel.”
Statistical records concerning the number of tests, the trainers and horses tested, and the results do not allow cheaters to evade detection. The only way it does assist cheaters is if the number of random and surprise testing is negligible over a period of more than four years. Then the cheaters would know that New York does not have a serious program of out-of-competition testing. Of course, they already know that.
For reasons that seem to be inexplicable, OOCT is a topic fraught with controversy. Several years ago, I heard complaints in New York about constitutional protections, as if horses were covered by the 5th and 14th Amendments. The California Horse Racing Board recently had a heated meeting in which organizations representing owners and trainers spewed vitriol against California’s Medical Director, Dr. Rick Arthur. While I have never met Arthur, his reputation is that of one of the most reputable and knowledgeable figures in the sport.
Arthur was frustrated by the lengthy delays in enacting regulations in California. Even third-party Lasix administration – a seemingly uncontroversial issue – took over a year to enact. He explained his rationale for an effective program of OOCT:
“Everyone also knows when we are going to test the horses – right after the race. That is pretty easy to plan around if you are bent on cheating. Many of the most effective [Performance Enhancing Drugs] are gone well before race day when horses are tested but the performance enhancing effects are still present. The effects of many drugs can last well past the time the drug is still present, or present at detectable levels.”
But If there was ever a more compelling argument for stricter drug enforcement, it was unwittingly made by the Vice-President of the North American Association of Racetrack Veterinarians who cautioned against the California OOTC proposal because of unanticipated “costs,” according to a piece by Jeremy Balan in BloodHorse Daily:
“There’s the potential loss of owners – people are already worried about that …. There’s potential loss of horses. If these horses are put on the vet’s list for six months, because of anabolic steroids, then that takes them effectively out of the population, and that’s a big issue right now.
There’s going to be a cost and a loss of integrity. We’re going to have positive tests. It’s inevitable.”
Uhh … seriously? Owners will not be coming in if they cannot administer illegal drugs to their horses? And that’s a negative?
But a loss of integrity does not come from a positive drug test. It comes from not caring whether horses are being illegally doped. When a minor league baseball player is assessed a lengthy suspension for testing positive for PED’s, that enhances the integrity of the sport, not diminish it.
New York’s lackadaisical attitude towards OOCT is particularly disturbing for a number of reasons:
- It typically takes in 20 per cent of the national betting handle, meaning that bettors cannot be confident they are getting an honest product;
- Transparency is always a beneficial characteristic, but even more so in a business where suspicions and rumors tend to be rampant;
- Disclosing the identities of trainers and horses who have been tested would be a benefit to all, but particularly to those who are the subject of the “knowing whispers;”
- Publicizing data on testing is the most effective deterrent there can be.
My fear, however, is that New York’s program – to the extent it even exists – is nothing more than a sham. How can it be that not a single thoroughbred tested positive over a period of more than four years? Even the positive tests on harness horses are minimal and come at suspicious intervals. In 2016, the six positives were in one month. The positives in 2017 were within two weeks and only for horses entered in that sport’s Sire Stakes.
And if New York cared about illegal doping, it would not have abandoned the collection of data that recorded the number of tests and results. At a time when the Governor is making a big deal about paying for a license for a child’s lemonade stand, one would hope that those in charge of racing integrity could make the minimal effort needed to track their progress or – more likely – the lack of progress in curbing doping.
At the Jockey Club’s 2016 Round Table Conference, Jeff Novitzky, the Executive Director of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, relayed his experiences in combatting drug abuse by human athletes. When he asked athletes why they cheated, the most common responses were that they neither trusted their competitors to be clean, nor did they trust their sport’s oversight body to enforce a level playing field.
Unfortunately for those playing by the rules in New York, as well as for those wagering on its product, there can be no confidence that New York is serious about a racing program with integrity.
There is excellent reporting on OOTC by The Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, including articles by Charles Hayward and Joe Gorajec, as well as The Paulick Report.