Former NBA commissioner David Stern dished out some sobering straight talk about horse racing's place in the professional sports hierarchy during the second day of the inaugural Pan American Conference in New York City June 5.
"I don't see Thoroughbred racing in the mix as much as it should be," Stern said when asked how pro sports were evolving in the digital age. He also suggested that horse racing had all but squandered its key advantage over other major sports--that people can bet legally, in most cases online, in 36 states on live racing.
One of the biggest challenges horse racing must address, Stern continued, is a tarnished image; one similar to the state of the NBA when he took over as commissioner.
"We grew the product because we were tired of people believing if you played in the NBA you were a punk or a thug," he said. "We improved the integrity of our sport, and the image and the health of our players were most important to us. We improved the product.
"Ask the average reader of a newspaper (about racing)--who's not a fan of racing--they'll start with a litany of over-medication, and retirement of horses that haven't been properly cared for, and the whip. It is an image that isn't affected by the tradition of Seabiscuit or Citation or Man o' War or Secretariat. But you can't just do it with marketing. If you can't address the issues with substance, then don't even bother.
"There is nothing worse for a bad product than good advertising. You have to be sure your product is what you want it to be and you have to be ready to fight with anyone who does not want to treat your product with respect. That includes both inside and outside the sport."
The entire second day was heavy with presentations regarding medication regulation and reform in horse racing.
The emphasis was not surprising considering The Jockey Club, which co-organized the conference with the Latin American Racing Channel, had announced last August its intention to support federal legislation to bring uniform medication policy to the United States and bring those policies in line with the world's other major racing jurisdictions, particularly in regard to allowing race-day medication use.
"We need to recognize that sport has become a business," Howman said. "People get involved because they see a career—a lot of money to be made by coaches, a lot money by athletes and that leads to issues."
A couple pieces of federal legislation, one co-authored by U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko of New York and another co-authored by Reps. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, and Anna Eshoo of California all would give the United States Anti-Doping Agency oversight of equine medication policy, drug testing, and enforcement. USADA is the United States' member organization in WADA.
Howman's presentation was immediately followed by Louis Romanet, chairman of the International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities, who called for a global approach to horse welfare with the goal that all horses should compete when they are free from the influence of medication. He said initiatives should cover "the entire life of the Thoroughbred from conception to final retirement from racing and breeding."
"We must test both in competition and out of competition," Romanet said. "The biological integrity of the Thoroughbred is something that is in front us. I am talking about genetic manipulation to control the growth of muscle tissue, which some call the 'Schwarzenegger gene,' or to increase the production of red blood cells.
"People found taking these actions, we must be sure the horse loses its status as a Thoroughbred."
No medication issue in the U.S. is more divisive than the race-day use of the diuretic furosemide (Salix, also known as Lasix). A similar battle raged in South America until 2011 when the major racing countries began phasing out the anti-bleeding medication that is effective in controlling exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging but also has shown indications of improving performance.
Dr. Mayra Frederico, an equine veterinarian and manager of Jockey Club Brasileiro, presented statistics showing no statistically significant decline in field size or starters occurred when race-day furosemide was eliminated. Most tracks saw field size remain relatively stable, while one track in Argentina saw average size increase.
"You just have to make the rule and everyone adjusts," Frederico said after her presentation. "The trainers had to learn new training methods, they couldn't push their horses as hard as they did, but they learned. And you can see by the numbers, it didn't make that much of a difference."
And finally, a talk by Jockey Club vice chairman Stuart Janney III re-emphasized the registry's commitment to a national approach to medication policing and reform through USADA.
"Our medication policies are inferior to the rest of the world because we are one of the few countries permitting race-day medication," Janney said. "Our fans are concerned about the integrity of the sport, and we are divided on exactly how to reform our medication policy."
Janney said the efforts made through the ongoing National Uniform Medication Reform program still don't address the slow and often complicated regulatory hoops any changes to the policies require.
"No matter how good the intentions, the system is antiquated and broken," he said.
Janney cited two recent national surveys conducted by Penn Schoen Berland, a Washington, D.C.-based market research firm that showed that 98% of horse racing bettors, 96% of occasional horse racing fans, 91% of animal welfare supporters, and 91% of likely voters support national uniform medication rules.
"Bettors, who are the lifeblood of our industry, understand the value of an independent science-based organization to ensure racing integrity," he said, noting that USADA is not a federal agency but rather a non-governmental agency that works effectively with private enterprise, such as the Olympics. "By a 15-to-1 margin, bettors say they bet less when they believe there is performance-enhancing drug use, and 77% believe there is.
"The American Jockey Club is committed to medication reform. We welcome your support."