By Tom LaMarra and Esther Marr
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said it will "go away" if horse racing addresses its medication issues, and industry officials who have spent countless hours trying to do just that suggest progress is evident but not recognized.
Recent PETA allegations of racehorse abuse and mistreatment have stepped up calls from industry organizations for passage of uniform model rules for equine medication, penalties, and drug testing. But it hasn't made the endeavor any more urgent, said Alan Foreman, chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.
"I've been watching this very closely," Foreman, who noted the Mid-Atlantic region push for adoption of uniform rules began about a year ago, said March 26. "The Mid-Atlantic covers a large swath of racing in the United States. We're almost a year into this and only about three or four jurisdictions (nationally) haven't moved forward (in some manner). Let's see where we are at the end of 2014."
According to The Jockey Club, the number of U.S. racing jurisdictions in which the model rules have either been approved by regulatory agencies, are in the adoption process, or are under discussion account for more than 90% of pari-mutuel handle and about 90% of purses paid. Maryland already operates under the uniform rule package; Delaware and Massachusetts will do so when live racing begins in May; and Kentucky expects to have the regulations in place sometime this spring.
Of the four segments of the National Uniform Medication Program, the therapeutic medication schedule and laboratory accreditation have made the most progress. Administration of race-day furosemide, also called Salix or Lasix, is next, followed by the multiple medication violation penalty system, which is the final piece.
For maximum results the plan requires full compliance. Delays have generally resulted from individual state laws that require legislative approval, officials said.
"I would hope whatever we are doing is simply the beginning of a continual process," said Matt Iuliano, executive vice president and executive director for The Jockey Club. "In any sport you can't sit back and proclaim victory. These are significant and terrific reforms, but our job is to continue to look into and probe, and find areas of continued improvement.
"We spend a great deal of time on the phone or in person with racing commissioners. We've got a lot of work ahead of us. The thing that always makes us nervous is the 'in-process' component of this. This has a lot of peril in it."
The national drug reform program got off the ground when the industry struck a compromise on the anti-bleeding drug Salix. There are, however, racing participants—members of the Water Hay Oats Alliance, for example—who believe all medication should be banned on race day and that only federal oversight can move horse racing forward.
PETA, which released video of activity in trainer Steve Asmussen's barn as part of an undercover investigation, has stated its support for the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which calls for federal governance of equine medication by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. But the group also urges people to stay away from, and not wager on, horse races, including the Triple Crown events.
In light of that, PETA senior vice president Kathy Guillermo was asked if the group is anti-horse racing.
"Overall, we're opposed to any kind of activity that exploits animals, so we certainly come down on the abolitionist side," Guillermo said March 26. "That being said, what I feel what we've very reasonably advocated for ever since we became involved in this in 2008 is for the industry to clean up its problems.
"We would probably go away if they would do that. I think it's important for people that oppose the kinds of things we documented to stay away from racing until that happens.
"We know Lasix (use) is widespread. We also know it's considered a performance-enhancer as Dr. (James) Hunt said on the video, in spite of what so many people have claimed over the years. We know from evidence that came out in the New York Times two years ago that muscle relaxants, painkillers, and sedatives are commonly used. I believe what our video did is show what it really means for these animals," Guillermo said.
Iuliano said a major goal of the National Uniform Medication Program is to address and curtail excessive use of legal therapeutic medications.
"The uniform medication program creates very bright lines for when medication is used and guidance for when it should stop being used," he said. "For those arguing there is abuse of or overuse of therapeutic medications, this program does speak to that (on the penalty side). If a pattern is established of (a person) exceeding (limits), it should be telling you something."
"If the MMV (penalty system) were in place, it would have changed this type of behavior," Foreman said of trainers perhaps overusing legal drugs and having consistent therapeutic medication violations on their records. "Going forward there will be a structure in place to grab onto this situation."
PETA released a nine-minute video of activities in the Asmussen barn in 2013 at Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course. Based on published reports that said up to seven hours of secret video was taken, Guillermo was asked if would be made public.
"As far as further release of video, there is some additional video, but it is with law enforcement authorities, and we don't have any plans right now to release that," she said. "New York, Kentucky, and New Mexico have opened investigations or are about to. I understand there are some precautions being put in place (for) the Wood Memorial (gr. I) for illegal substances (at Aqueduct Racetrack). But the problem really is the legal substances from our perspective.
"What I have been told by two or three dozen people over the years is that what we documented is widespread. That doesn't mean that everybody behaves that way. But the use of thyroid medication—that was one of the issues that came up with (trainer) Bob Baffert when his horses died unexpectedly."
Foreman was asked if the horse racing industry, despite progress that began with the banning of anabolic steroids on race day more than five years ago, will ever be able to satisfy participants and observers.
"If the federal legislation had passed last year, and USADA had taken over (regulation of equine medication), what you saw happen on that (PETA) video wouldn't have been any different," Foreman said. "They don't regulate conduct or obscene behavior. The underbelly of any sport is probably not pretty.
"It must all be about Lasix, because we have eliminated race-day medication with the exception of Lasix, and that now is more tightly regulated (under the model rules). We're still arguing about the past and what could or should have been rather than what we're doing now.
"We don't have a single, central voice willing to step up for the industry and tell it like it is. This PETA thing is a little different; we need to wait (until the investigations are completed) and respond forcefully. The problem is we can't get the industry to respond with one voice.
"You want one message from the industry, but I'm not confident when this is done that there will be one," Foreman said.