The racing industry's quest for uniformity in medication and drug testing continued Wednesday with a lively panel discussion on the issue at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing in Tucson. Meanwhile, the jury is out as to whether there will be considerable change in Kentucky, a major racing state where officials appear split on the issue.
The discussion, titled "The Reality of Perception," featured a brief overview of Tuesday's all-day Racehorse Medication Summit, an update on the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Racing Integrity and Drug Testing Task Force, and a question-and-answer session with trainers, owners, and racing officials. Daily Racing Form editor Steven Crist moderated the session.
"Uniformity has been absolutely the most important thing I've heard discussed," said California-based trainer Richard Mandella, a panelist who also participated in the facilitated summit meeting Tuesday.
"The medication issue really goes to the heart of our business," said panelist Alex Waldrop, president of Churchill Downs. "We like to talk about what's most important, like marketing and promotions, and the way we sell the business is the attraction of the horse. But the economic underpinning of the business is wagering. The thing we have to protect above all others is integrity."
Dr. Gary Norwood said veterinarians are frustrated by a lack of uniformity. "The testing has got to fit the rules," Norwood said. "All we want to do is care for the horse without interfering with the integrity of the racing game."
In conjunction with the panel discussion, the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program released the results of a survey of owners, trainers, and veterinarians. The medication surveys were mailed to 1,090 owners and 995 trainers, though the number of completed surveys for those two groups weren't immediately available. Almost 100 veterinarians responded.
Of the owners, 90% said uniformity was needed, 78% said medication is an industry problem, and 43% said there is no level playing field in the racing business. Of the trainers, 70% said current medication rules are fair and protect the health and welfare of the horse, and 70% said medication is a problem in racing.
The veterinarians said uniformity is needed, and that some tests are too sensitive and result in unnecessary positives. They also said there is "pressure to overmedicate," and that some trainers and owners are medicating horses without veterinarians present.
"Standard rules have a lot of support," said Dr. John Walzak of the University of Arizona. "People want rules they can understand. They want to be able to practice their profession and not have a violation. They want the penalty to fit the rules."
Walzak also said the survey results revealed "a strong perception that cheating is going on." Whether that is fact, given the repeated lack of proof, was a topic for the panel.
"I'm in the minority, and perhaps a little naïve, but I don't perceive it as a problem," said trainer Tom Amoss, who races primarily in Kentucky and Louisiana. "I had my first job on the racetrack in 1977, and have been at the track since then. I've worked for a lot of trainers, and was a vet's assistant for a year. I don't see some of the things being mentioned here.
"We hear all this talk about newfangled drugs beating a test, but how sure are we it's really occurring?"
Mandella said the industry must protect against use of prohibited drugs, but he agreed with Amoss that perception isn't necessarily reality. "You have great suspicions something is happening, but I don't believe you're going to find much," he said. "I've been doing this all my life, and I haven't seen it."
In regard to uniformity, Kentucky's medication rules, considered too permissive by some in the industry, came up for discussion. Later in the morning, comments from some industry representatives suggested there could be complications in the quest for uniformity.
"Uniformity is fine," said Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "People may want uniformity, but does that uniformity do away with raceday medication? Most Kentucky horsemen and racetrack practitioners don't think that's a good idea."
Amoss said he would prefer for Kentucky rules to be the national model because they are good for the racehorse. He did say, though, he would be willing to compromise to get a national uniform policy on medication.
"Kentucky has to be part of a nationwide policy," Waldrop said. "We cannot isolate ourselves. I appreciate (the horsemen's concerns), but the fact is there will be no secrets. It will be discussed out in the open."
Maline said any change in policy in Kentucky would have to go through the regulatory process. He said Kentucky HBPA president Dr. Alex Harthill, and HBPA adviser Dr. Thomas Tobin of the University of Kentucky, have strong support in the state.
This week in Tucson, the Kentucky HBPA expressed concerns its voice wouldn't be heard even though the National HBPA had two representatives at the closed medication summit sponsored by the American Association of Racetrack Practitioners.
"If they're going to set policy and not allow us to be at the table, I guess we'll just have to come up against that," Maline said.
Summit invitees did agree on uniformity in medication, drug testing, security, and enforcement, but said they did not tackle rules in individual jurisdictions. The idea behind the about seven-hour meeting, they said, was to reach a consensus, not be divided.