Merge Ahead?

Three recent or pending rulings against high-profile trainers -- Bob Baffert in California and Nick Zito and Scott Lake in New York -- point out the desperate need for state racing commissions to recognize there is a serious challenge for them involving drug regulations and testing.

Baffert was given a 60-day suspension after one of his horses tested positive for 73 nanograms of morphine. Zito was suspended for 15 days after 10 nanograms of lidocaine reportedly turned up in a post-race test. Lake faces a suspension after one of his horses tested positive for clenbuterol. The trainer said the horse would have been able to race the same day in several other states without testing positive for the medication.

Uniformity in medication rules, including establishment of threshold levels for testing, has been difficult to achieve because racing is regulated on a state-by-state basis. For many years it was hoped a national organization of racing commissioners would be able to persuade individual commissions to work toward a common goal of uniformity. The organization, the National Association of State Racing Commissioners, was founded in 1934 with a mission to "encourage forceful and honest nationwide control of racing for the protection of the public." While the NASRC could "encourage" its members all it wanted, it never has been able to dictate or change policies within member states.

In 1988, with a number of overseas organizations as members, the name of the NASRC was changed to the Association of Racing Commissioners International. Even with its new name, the RCI remained a service organization, one whose leaders traveled to exotic places for its annual convention and whose members bickered over its president's salary and travel expenses. Ultimately, RCI was ineffective in dealing with serious matters.

As a result, in 1997, a splinter group of commissioners formed a second national organization, the North American Pari-Mutuel Regulators Association. This new group, with the acronym NAPRA, tried to learn from the mistakes of the RCI and provide what many now see as superior services to members in areas where the RCI came up short. NAPRA has picked up as members a number of groups that dropped out of the RCI.

The existence of two national organizations representing state racing commissions is the height of folly. Tony Chamblin, the longtime RCI president who many blamed for his organization's problems, announced earlier this year that he was stepping down, a move that should end much of the divisiveness among the commissions. If nothing else, his resignation should be a catalyst for the RCI and NAPRA to merge. One strong national organization of racing commissioners is of vital importance to the industry.

The lack of uniformity in medication rules is a growing problem. Lake, for example, runs horses in virtually every racing state in the northeastern United States, all of which, he said, enforce different levels for clenbuterol. A certain level of the drug might result in a positive in New York, but not in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. Keeping track of medication rules, he said, is the most difficult part of Lake's job, especially with drug tests now able to pick up microscopic levels of prohibited substances, some of which find their way into a horse's system through contamination.

"Racing has changed, testing has changed, and they need to change the rules, especially to allow for outside contamination," Lake said.

If racing commissions can't decide which national organization should represent them, it seems almost absurd to suggest the industry should move toward uniform medication rules. Somehow, though, commissioners have to find a way to steer clear of their own politics and do what is right for the game.