Commentary: A Reasonable Approach

By Alex Waldrop -

On Feb. 27, I appeared before a Congressional Subcommittee for a hearing entitled, “Drugs in Sports: Compromising the Health of Athletes and Undermining the Integrity of Competition.” The testimony made it clear that most sports are grappling with many common drug-related issues. We can now add one more common issue to the list: the very real possibility of federal intervention to “clean up” sports competition.

The truth is, horse racing has a very good story to tell regarding recent integrity initiatives. In the past decade, the industry has implemented a more streamlined and thorough drug classification system, established better methods of testing, invested millions of dollars in research, and developed model medication rules and penalties. Much of the credit for this progress should go to the Racing Medication Testing Consortium, representing virtually every segment of the industry. The RMTC, along with the Association of Racing Commissioners International, has led to an effective collaboration between industry stakeholders and state regulators. Despite the progress, Congress and some industry participants believe the pace needs to quicken.

The subcommittee’s ranking member, Congressmen Ed Whitfield (R-KY), plainly views the glass as half empty when it comes to the industry’s integrity efforts. Rep. Whitfield referred to a study indicating that 60% of starters compete on anabolic steroids. He noted that while some states have adopted the RMTC/RCI model rules and penalties, others have been slow to act or have not acted at all. He painted a portrait of confusing rules from state-to-state juxtaposed against what could be nationally mandated model rules. He noted that many prominent industry participants have urged Congress to do what horse racing appears unable or unwilling to do: pass national, standardized medication rules and penalties. He didn’t, but he also could have mentioned that fans clearly support strict enforcement and strong integrity.

Much of what Rep. Whitfield said was hard to refute. Seven states have yet to adopt the model medication rules. Far fewer have adopted the model penalties, and 22 states have taken little or no action on the model anabolic steroid rule. That doesn’t even count those jurisdictions that passed the model rules, but only after modifying them to some degree.

Rep. Whitfield made it clear that he and others expect the industry to adopt all model rules and penalties—including a rule banning anabolic steroids from competition—by Dec. 31. Suggesting the approach Congress will take if the industry fails to act, Rep. Whitfield asked: “Would it be unreasonable to say if a state doesn’t adopt (the rules), they could lose simulcast rights as authorized in the Interstate Horseracing Act (IHA) of 1978?”

My reply was, “No. That would not be unreasonable.” More than a few have questioned my response.

I could not honestly say that it would be “unreasonable” for Congress to premise the IHA protections on the adoption of specific medication rules and penalties. Clearly, some in our industry are urging Whitfield to do just that. Is federal intervention the preferred route? The answer to that question is categorical—“No.” 

Federal intervention in medication issues shifts significant control over our industry from the states to the federal government, which has no expertise and little or no interest in effectively regulating our industry. Federal intervention also is likely to carry a heavy price that will be paid by greater taxation on commerce under the IHA. Too much money is already being siphoned off our industry by antiquated, state government-imposed excise taxes—money the RMTC would rather see spent on research and testing by the states. Federal intervention might force uniformity, but at a price our industry cannot afford.
Contrast that with the RMTC/RCI model rule process, a creative private/public partnership that delivers racing the necessary independent oversight while also giving the industry a real say in the way in which it is being regulated.

As long as states drag their feet in adopting the RMTC/RCI model rules, federal intervention is a real possibility. We in horse racing are faced with a simple choice: we can move with purpose and resolve to gain national adoption of the model rules as put forth by RMTC and RCI following broad scientific and regulatory input from the industry; or we can delay implementation and await the very real possibility of federal intervention. Given this choice, the time to pass the model rules—including the anabolic steroid rule—is now.

Alex Waldrop is president and chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.