Horsemen: No Tolerance for 'Zero Tolerance'

Representatives of affiliates of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association indicated Jan. 22 they support uniformity in medication and drug testing but need clear guidelines and consistent interpretation of the rules by sometimes overzealous regulators and stewards.

Issues came to light during a panel discussion hosted by the National HBPA medication committee as part of its winter convention in Tampa, Fla. The dialogue stemmed from recent positives for benzoylecgonine (BZE), a metabolite of cocaine, in Indiana.

Indiana is a "zero tolerance" state, which means any level of a substance in a horse's system constitutes a positive. That means trainers are fined and purses forfeited even though the amount of a substance in a horse's system would have no influence on performance according to scientific research.

Dr. Thomas Tobin, medication and testing consultant for the National HBPA, said the goal is to publish the evidence so regulators and academic veterinarians can't ignore it. Tobin, of the University of Kentucky, noted testing shows BZE is excreted in urine 1,000 times greater than in blood, and that the Indiana positives "were of no regulatory significance whatsoever."

Said Dr. Steven Barker of Louisiana State University: "There is plenty of scientific data on exposure of horses to cocaine, and a lot of studies have been done on humans that show people can be readily contaminated...All materials that come in contact with a horse have the potential to contaminate the animal."

Dr. Cynthia Cole of the University of Florida suggested the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, which has developed a policy for uniform medication, could address the zero-tolerance issue. RMTC chairman Dan Fick, who provided an update on the RMTC and its need for long-term funding, said the organization is concerned about the BZE positives and their impact on horsemen.

Kentucky HBPA executive director Marty Maline said some regulators might have taken the RMTC recommendations too far. "There are some who have gotten more aggressive than the RMTC," he said. "The comment they make is a positive is a positive...It's disturbing that some regulators have lost focus of what the RMTC was trying to accomplish. They're hurting the industry instead of helping it."

Lynne Schuller, executive director of the Nebraska HBPA, said horsemen face a dilemma: They support uniformity but may operate in jurisdictions in which regulators are using the RMTC guidelines to become crusaders to the detriment of horsemen.

"We cannot in good conscience pay for something that's going to put (horsemen) out of racing," said Schuller, who noted Nebraska has a fairly short Thoroughbred racing season. "(A 15-day suspension for environmental contamination) is like the death penalty."

Officials said similar cocaine positives have been called at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort in West Virginia.

"The only ones who will get out of the positives are the ones who can afford high-priced attorneys," said Lora Bailey, executive director of the Mountaineer HBPA. "What are the other ones going to do? They'll have to take their six months."

Fick, executive director of The Jockey Club, noted the RMTC policy includes detailed cases in which discretion should be used by regulators and stewards when it comes to penalties for infractions. Horsemen acknowledged the policy but said it's not specific enough, especially when it comes to minimums and corrective action taken by stewards.

"Give them a maximum so they can go wild, but don't give them a minimum so they have discretion," said Conrad Cohen, president of the Ontario HBPA. "You have to know how stewards think."

The medication committee during the meeting approved a motion to review the RMTC document, primarily as it pertains to penalties, and make recommendations as soon as possible. Florida HBPA executive director Kent Stirling, chairman of the National HBPA medication committee, is the organization's RMTC representative.

Fick said the RMTC has plenty of work to do and needs committed funds beyond 2006. The plan calls for a $5 per-start fee from horsemen and a comparable payment from racetracks based on purses. It would be phased in over four years--25%, 50%, 75%, and 100%--from 2006-2009.

In the first year, the average owner, whose horses make eight starts per year, would pay $1.25 per start, or $10. "We think this is very affordable," Fick said. "If you believe in what we're doing, please support us. We need to raise the level of our staff to get this done."

The RMTC staff currently consists of executive director Dr. Scot Waterman and one part-time assistant.