Calls to action aren’t new to The Jockey Club Round Table conference, but at this year’s meeting Aug. 17 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., there appeared to be a sense of urgency. Public perception and the threat of federal intervention have a way of moving things along.
In what a few attendees called the best Round Table in years, Thoroughbred industry representatives outlined a strategy for reforms in equine safety and drug testing. And The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Safety Committee, formed in early May, announced more recommendations, this time with a focus on medication.
Though changes have been in the works for years, the breakdown of the filly Eight Belles as she galloped out after this year’s Kentucky Derby (gr. I) triggered an intense push for national reforms such as bans on anabolic steroids and toe grabs. In his opening remarks at the Round Table, Jockey Club chairman Ogden “Dinny” Phipps said the effort is genuine.
“(Eight Belles) made the industry wake up and take notice of its problems,” Phipps said. “We are not recommending reforms to appease people. We are making them because we need to make them.”
The Thoroughbred Safety Committee issued four new recommendations, including creation of a task force to develop a business plan for equine drug testing and research; adoption and implementation of model rule classification guidelines and penalties by Dec. 31 of this year; prohibition of alkalinizing agents—“milkshakes”—by all racing jurisdictions, and adoption of racetrack “house rules” in the interim; and participation by all racing regulatory agencies in the equine industry database developed by The Jockey Club.
Stuart Janney III, chairman of the Thoroughbred Safety Committee, said the group has had five all-day meetings the past three months and received input from more than 40 industry stakeholders. The Jockey Club considers the safety panel a “standing committee,” which means its work isn’t temporary.
“There will be additional recommendations forthcoming, but I don’t have a timeline,” said Janney, who mentioned synthetic surfaces, use of the anti-bleeder medication Salix (formerly Lasix) in racehorses, and field size in the Kentucky Derby as issues that could be addressed by the committee.
Alan Foreman, chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, recommended a plan to streamline equine drug testing and research. He said the horseracing industry spends more money—about $30 million a year—on drug testing than any other sport, but the public wouldn’t know it.
Foreman said the $30 million, which mostly comes from state funding, is spread over 18 laboratories and used inefficiently.
“Even the best (labs) don’t have the resources to do the testing needed,” Foreman said. “We’re spending the same amount as we did 20 years ago. Our system worked decades ago, but it won’t work now.”
Foreman called for creation of a research lab controlled by the racing industry; quick adoption of standards for all labs; consolidation of the lab system into perhaps a regional structure; investment in research and development to handle threats such as gene-doping; recruitment of post-graduate students interested in drug testing under a program that initially will be funded by the THA; and adoption of uniform guidelines issued by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, which Foreman called “the best response to the threat of federal intervention.”
“Everyone in this room is a steward of a national treasure,” Foreman said in reference to the racing industry. “I am willing to drop everything I’m doing to make these recommendations a reality.”
Funding remains a serious impediment given the fact state funding for racing regulators continues to decrease, yet demands increase. Regulators outlined their funding concerns in April during the Association of Racing Commissioners International annual meeting.
“There weren’t many new ideas here today, and the main issue has not been addressed,” RCI president Ed Martin said after the Round Table. "I would challenge (the industry) to match the money now spent on drug testing. There is no beef. Where’s the beef?”
Foreman later said much can be accomplished by redirecting funds and making the testing process more efficient by using fewer labs. He said reallocation of money would get the industry “much further along that it has ever been.”
National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and chief executive officer Alex Waldrop said the business plan that will be created by The Jockey Club could address funding for future drug-testing endeavors. “I think (the funding problem) is being acknowledged,” he said.
Round Table attendees were greeted at the Gideon Putnam Hotel by security officers summoned in case animal-rights demonstrators showed up. Toward the end of the two-hour conference, there was one protestor outside carrying a sign saying, “I am not PETA,” which stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
A similar demonstration took place outside the hotel where the American Horse Council convention was held in June.