While the topics at this year's Saratoga Institute on Racing and Gaming Law were similar to those at other industry meetings this summer, the tenor of the presentations and perspectives of the panelists were not.
Two days after The Jockey Club Round Table conference, at which chairman Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps declared that the organization would support federal oversight of racing in the absence of further medication reform, a variety of panelists said public perception of the sport is based in faulty and biased representation by both the press and industry organizations.
Both events were held in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
On the opening panel of the law conference, trainer John Kimmel, who holds a veterinary degree from the University of Pennsylvania, asked how many people in attendance believed that racehorses were overmedicated. When approximately 50% of the attendees raised their hands, Kimmel challenged their perception.
"If you came out and visited the backside and saw the care that horses get, you'd be quite astounded at the level of care and concern they receive," he said. "It's easy to throw darts when you're uninformed."
Kimmel's comment set the tone for a series of panels dealing with medication matters, presented by the Government Law Center and the Institute for Legal Studies at Albany Law School. The audience was mostly lawyers who receive continuing legal education credit for attending.
A parade of panelists declared that an inaccurate public perception of the sport has been created by organizations like The Jockey Club and by media that hastens to cover "controversy and tragedy," as Chris Wittstruck put it, without background in the sport. Wittstruck, an attorney, is on the board of directors of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York.
Among the progress pointed out on the first day of the two-day event was the decline in racing fatalities in New York, which, according to veterinarian Dr. Scott Palmer, have dropped 49% over the last year. Palmer was a member of the New York State Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety, established by Gov. Andrew Cuomo following a rash of breakdowns at Aqueduct Racetrack in the winter of 2012.
Alan Foreman, chairman of Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, pointed to a model rule on penalties for medication violations adopted in July by the Association of Racing Commissioners International. Under the new system, which will now be brought to state racing commissions for adoption, repeat violators will accrue points that will lead to additional suspensions.
While observing that 99.59% of the more than 150,000 drug tests conducted in 2011 came back clean, RCI president Ed Martin acknowledged that racing, like baseball and other sports, needs to develop tests for sophisticated performance-enhancers that are currently not being detected. He also noted that the United States Anti-Doping Agency, unlike racing, receives $90 million from the federal government for drug testing.
Restricted financial resources are not the only obstacle to more rigorous testing. According to Dr. George Maylin, director of the Equine Drug Testing Program for New York State, few tests exist to detect protein-based performance enhancers such as erythropoietin (EPO) and growth hormones.
He also noted that because the substances are naturally present in horse's body, a baseline measure is necessary for accurate testing.
Almost every participant expressed the desire to implement a national uniform medication policy and to eliminate cheaters from the sport. Acknowledging the power of public perception, they pointed out that progress involves not creating policy as a response to what they consider inaccurate perceptions, but educating the public and enacting sensible change.
Trainer Rick Violette, president of the New York THA who was instrumental in advancing the recently adopted Mid-Atlantic Uniform Medication Program, expressed concern that the wide division in perspective among industry organizations will serve to thwart, rather than advance, further progress.
Referring to comments made at the Round Table, he said: "It's disappointing that progress in the industry is ignored."