By Barry Irwin
Racing is at a crossroads on many fronts these days. The New York Racing Association has its back up against the wall. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is in a leadership transition. The Thoroughbred Championship Tour is trying to get off the ground. Purses face erosion from off-shore betting schemes. But the single greatest problem facing the game--how to restore integrity to the race itself--is not receiving the attention it so desperately requires. A group of well-intentioned folk has been trying to create a list of acceptable race-day medications, with agreed-upon threshold levels they hope will add uniformity to the myriad of combinations currently used throughout the nation's racing jurisdictions. Their goal is to establish uniformity to give credibility to the game. Here is some bad news: even if this group achieves its ultimate goal, it is not going to do diddly-squat to solve the public perception of cleaning up a badly tarnished sport. There are two different issues regarding drugs--one regulatory and the other investigative. There are the approved medications the drug consortium is dealing with and there are the performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) few want to address. In order to claim back disenchanted bettors who have abandoned racing, we need to address their concerns about PEDs. A group of racing regulators appointed by politicians has no chance of allaying the fears of bettors or horsemen. Public officials have had their chance and they have failed. They should not be blamed, because in any field one cares to mention, self-policing has failed. That is why there is such a thing as a police review board. Horsemen are as much to blame as anybody, especially in Kentucky, where they are so hung up on retaining their horse candy they have muddled the issue of drugs in the public consciousness. They should be publicly addressing what they all talk about in private, which is that PEDs have irreparably tilted the playing field. Thoroughbred racing has a model it can use to climb its way out of the dark dungeon of public distrust. This model is the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Prior to the 2004 Olympics, the USADA cleansed the U.S. track and field team of several chronic cheaters. The USADA is an independent agency whose original funding came from the U.S. Olympic Committee. Prior to the establishment of the USADA, the U.S. track and field authority engaged in a systematic sweeping under the rug of drug positives. Sound familiar? It is no coincidence that prior to the establishment of the USADA, track athletes in our country shared with our racehorses a public perception that both are hopped to the gills. More than once, in speaking with public regulators, I have heard this comment: "If PEDs are really out there, why has nobody ever come to us and turned in some evidence?" The climate at the highest official body for U.S. track and field was such, prior to the advent of the USADA, that nobody had confidence that turning in incriminating evidence would be taken seriously. Shortly after establishment of the USADA, however, a coach turned in a syringe containing a designer drug that set the international sporting world on its ear. If racing had its own independent agency, events such as this would occur. An independent agency would not be inexpensive. But it could start by analyzing graded races, testing for which would be easier to fund by a combination of owners, racetracks, and state governments. Once the highest-level of racing in the land was shown to be on the square, testing of lesser races could follow. State-by-state fragmentation is killing our sport on the issue of PEDs. This industry more than anything needs an independent agency with its own cutting-edge laboratory and investigative arm to put an end to the type of cheating that has driven away some of its biggest bettors and discouraged its players from participating. Before racing presses forward with the TCT and expanded television coverage, it must first clean house, establish protocol for PEDs with some teeth, and recapture the faith of its bettors and players. Racing must offer a better sport. Unless racing goes the independent agency route, it is wasting everybody's time and money. BARRY IRWIN is president of Team Valor.