TOBA's Graded Gamble
Photo:
Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief
The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association is using the power of its American Graded Stakes Committee to improve drug testing standards under the threat of not grading races in jurisdictions that fail to follow its recommended testing protocol.

On the one hand, one might ask whether or not TOBA has a legitimate right to get into the business of regulating medication or drug-testing procedures in various racing jurisdictions. The graded stakes committee's mission always has been to sort out the quality of this country's best races so there is some rhyme or reason to the black type found in catalogues used at Thoroughbred auctions. Giving its seal of approval for the drug testing employed for those graded races could be interpreted as an expansion of that mission.

However, if not TOBA, then who?

Voluntary efforts to unify medication and testing procedures have been a running joke within the industry for decades. Race day medications used in a liberal state like Kentucky would land fines or suspensions in New York or California. What some racing commission executives define as "super testing" are what other states might call a quick once-over. There has been no pressure for the entire industry to upgrade the quality of its testing programs uniformly. Some jurisdictions are hampered by budgetary restraints. Others simply march to their own drummer, oblivious to whether testing is as good as it can be.

Triple Crown Productions could use its clout to insist on uniform medication rules and testing procedures for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes (all gr. I), but it hasn't. The Breeders' Cup has improved testing standards for its races, but generally has taken on the role of guest in whatever jurisdiction the World Thoroughbred Championships are run, and has tried not to make any waves.

The grade stakes committee is anything but timid. Its decision to tie drug testing protocol to a stakes being eligible for grading brings into question racing commission regulations and drug testing procedures in 21 states. Some of those states have little flexibility on which labs can conduct tests and how much can be spent on testing. The issue of who will pay for additional testing has not been answered. No one said it will be easy to force these states to adopt uniform protocols, but voluntary measures have not been successful.

There is a possibility this effort (some will call it coercion) will backfire. Imagine, if you will, a Kentucky Derby that is stripped of its grade I status because the Kentucky Racing Commission decides its drug testing program is stringent enough. If key racing commissions decide not to follow TOBA's lead, the credibility of the graded stakes system could crumble.

But someone has to take a leadership role to ensure the highest standards are being used to test those horses competing in America's most important races. Eventually, it is hoped, those high standards will be applied to testing for all races, not just those that will surface as black type on a catalogue page.

At this point, the risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of failure.

SEABISCUIT BUZZ

Keep your eyes peeled over the next two weeks as buzz for Seabiscuit intensifies. Jockey Gary Stevens, who plays George Woolf in the movie that opens July 25, is scheduled for a whirlwind publicity tour that will land him in some unusual places, including "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," the entertainment news magazine show "Extra," and many other print and electronic media that seldom if ever cover horse racing.

Seabiscuit fever is going to be easy to catch.

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