Perhaps it's a good sign that the medication of racehorses again was a prominent topic at the annual Jockey Club Round Table held Sunday in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. People are at least talking about it. Then again, maybe the repeat performance merely proves how tough it is to make progress in an area in which there is no black and white.
Jim Gallagher, executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Task Force on Racing Integrity and Drug Testing Standards, reported that 23 states have agreed to participate in a "super testing" program, under which blind urine samples will be tested to identify illegal medications. Racetracks have picked up the tab for about $150,000 worth of tests, which are designed to lay the groundwork for uniform testing.
Gallagher said the task force has contracted with Cornell University and the University of California-Davis to test the samples, the origin of which will remain anonymous.
Meanwhile, a committee formed by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association late last year released a position paper that outlines suggested guidelines for enhanced security, enforcement, and testing in regard to medication. The report says the long-term goal is uniform medication policies in all racing states, something the NTRA task force has decided not to tackle because of political ramifications. For example, the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association has opposed any effort to tinker with the state's medication rules.
The TOBA committee has recommended, among other measures, implementation of random detention barns, surveillance for horses from stables that have had positive drug tests, installation of cameras in barns, a rule that would require all horses to be on the grounds six hours before they race, and written reports of treatment by veterinarians.
As for penalties, the committee suggests higher fines and lengthier suspensions that are uniform in all jurisdictions, the suspension of horses who fail drug tests, and punitive action against veterinarians. It also recommended a model medication policy for high-profile events such as the Breeders' Cup and Triple Crown races.
The committee, which first met last December, has asked many industry organizations to review and endorse the proposal. TOBA chairman Stuart Janney III said he sensed the industry "was at a crossroads on medication -- brought to that point by lax regulation, new, very effective performance-enhancing drugs, a number of unscrupulous vets and trainers, finite resources, and a desire by racing authorities to not air dirty linen in public."
In other comments at the Round Table, Janney said casinos and card clubs at some racetracks are equipped with surveillance cameras, but the "core product, the Thoroughbred, is left with little or no security" on the backstretch. Craig Fravel, executive vice president at Del Mar, said the Southern California track has implemented new security procedures on its backstretch, and may add more pending discussions with horsemen.
When asked after the Round Table whether the TOBA committee report was based on research and hard numbers -- proof that cheating and misuse of medication are commonplace -- Janney said: "We're being informed by people who are involved at the racetrack every day. It seems we really need to take command of this issue. Real or perceived, it's very important. We rely on the bettor, but the bettor has not been given evidence we really care about him."
Some Standardbred tracks implemented detention barns years ago, and Meadowlands this year installed surveillance cameras. Such security measures often prove costly and unpopular with horsemen, especially those who stable off site. The TOBA report doesn't say who will foot the bill for increased security.
"A detention barn is no more effective than the security you have in it," said Stan Bergstein, executive vice president of Harness Tracks of America, who attended the Round Table. "Perhaps an even greater problem is training centers. We now have a majority of horses shipping in to race, and these facilities have no effective security whatsoever."
Off-track training facilities have become quite popular in Thoroughbred racing as well. The TOBA report says "racetracks and other affected groups" need to consider heightened security.
In 1991, the Thoroughbred industry was handed the McKinsey Report, a national strategy to improve drug-testing practices that some say fell on deaf ears. At the 1998 Round Table, formation of the NTRA task force was announced, and since that time medication issues have had a prominent spot on the Round Table agenda.
The Round Table was supposed to feature more details on the NTRA's venture with IBM Global Services, but that wasn't the case. Just days before the Round Table, the NTRA board of directors spent time discussing an advisory committee report that suggests changes to the IBM project.
Rob Law, senior consultant for IBM, did reiterate the company's enthusiasm for the project, which at the core involves a total streamlining of practices in the pari-mutuel industry. "In your terms, we think it's a 1-9 shot," Law said.
In his pointed closing remarks, NTRA commissioner Tim Smith appeared to target opponents to the IBM venture and those who may believe they're not getting their money's worth from the NTRA. "We need the courage to put a stake in the ground and say, `This is the right thing to do,' " Smith said. "We will address every legitimate concern, but we can't be paralyzed by giving equal weight to every separate agenda."
The two-hour Round Table featured no fewer than 16 speakers, and most topics were relegated to sound bites. There were a few gold nuggets during the smoothly orchestrated session, though, including an announcement by The Jockey Club Information Systems about upgrades to equineline.com that will allow users to obtain personalized information in a secure format.
The Internet system will allow members of the Thoroughbred industry to basically fashion their own Web sites. For example, there will be automatic updates on pedigree, past-performance, and racing office information -- an "interactive condition book" -- as well as a messaging system. Other information will include the prices at which horses are appraised and insured.
"We think this system will not only change the way we do business inside the industry, but it will serve potential new owners," TJCIS president Carl Hamilton said.
In other technological matters, Jockey Club executive director Gary Carpenter gave an update on DNA registration, which is expected to reduce the total cost of foal registrations by $1 million. The Thoroughbred industry has long used blood samples for identification and registration.