By Ray Paulick
-- When we celebrate this year's winner of America's greatest horse race May 4 at Churchill Downs, how many people will be questioning whether the Kentucky Derby, instead of being won by the best horse that day, went to the most "sophisticated" team...you know, the ones who stole NASA's secret formula for rocket fuel?
As preposterous as that sounds, many of our recent equine heroes have been tainted--not by any proof that illicit, illegal, undetectable drugs are catapulting plodders into champions--but by unsubstantiated accusations that certain trainers are just too successful.
The respected veterinarian Wayne McIlwraith, for one, is tired of hearing it. "One of my frustrations in the industry is that whenever a trainer is doing well, he's got to be using something," McIlwraith said during a panel discussion on medication at the annual convention of the Association of Racing Commissioners International. He said many of those who insist there is rampant use of illegal drugs are smart people who should know better.
Veteran Ohio racing commissioner Norman Barron suggested jealousy among owners as a reason for such comments. "Unhappiness in not winning often leads to the owner saying his horse didn't get the 'extracurricular' drugs," said Barron, a former owner and breeder.
"Somewhere along the line we have to stop accusing each other of cheating," said another panelist, Dr. Ron Jensen, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board. "I don't think there's that much illegal medication going on--there's some." But Jensen said illegal drugs may not be the only problem in racing. "Any therapeutic medication can be abused," Jensen said.
Barron said owners could be the reason many horses are over-medicated. "There's pressure (on trainers and veterinarians) to use drugs...to pacify the guy who is paying the bills," he said.
McIlwraith, Barron, and Jensen are just three of many industry players who want to see improvements in drug testing and uniform rules and testing guidelines. Barron, who said uniform medication rules were a priority when he came to his first RCI convention nearly 20 years ago, noted uniformity will not occur through open dialogue. He suggested economic sanctions against states that don't cooperate, such as withholding Breeders' Cup races.
But Dr. Scot Waterman, newly appointed head of the NTRA Racing Integrity and Drug Testing Task Force, said states with bare-bones drug testing budgets can't participate. Some tests don't come cheaply, Waterman said. As an example, he cited the $2 million spent by the International Olympic Committee for a test to detect epogen, which produces red blood cells and is abused by human athletes. By comparison, the RCI could only budget $20,000 for an epogen test.
There is positive momentum toward uniform rules and improved drug testing, much of which was generated last December during a medication summit organized by the American Association of Equine Practitioners and then-president McIlwraith. But a shortage of funds, a familiar roadblock, could put the brakes on the good work that McIlwraith, Waterman, former Task Force executive director Jim Gallagher, current TOBA chairman Gary Biszantz, and many others have done.
Thoroughbred owners and breeders collectively have a multi-billion-dollar investment at stake, and the best way to protect their investment is to ensure the betting public perceives this game is clean. The only way to do that is to participate as a shareholder in the development of sensible medication rules and drug testing standards that live up to anyone's scrutiny.
But money isn't the only obstacle. "Negativity can derail us," McIlwraith said. Let's all accept the winner of this year's Derby as the best horse. Period.