John W. Russell

John W. Russell

Palatable Solutions

By John W. Russell

At a time when legislators struggle to decide how to fund Medicare, the media outcry concerning drugs in athletics is revealing an odd commentary on our nation's priorities. Obviously the two issues are not connected but the public interest in drugs used by a handful of athletes seems to outweigh the concern for keeping our population healthy.

Fortunately for Thoroughbred racing, this preoccupation has deflected some of the public scrutiny away from our sport, but it will return. When top trainers are accused of running horses on illegal medication, racing is inviting the same negative publicity as the Olympics, and it can't afford to be regarded with the same skepticism. People bet on horses, and that is the lifeblood of the industry, but if doping scandals become anywhere near as widespread as those in athletics, horse racing will become a very anemic business indeed.

Newspaper headlines covering the Olympics have given as much ink to lab testing losers as to medal winners. And worse, the International Olympic Committee accused the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Track & Field of ignoring and even covering up positive tests of illegal drugs.

Doping in athletics is nothing new, nor is it in horse racing, but at a time when all the athletes of the world come together in one place, the focus on the problem is intensified. But after everyone leaves the Land of Oz, will the wrath of the indignant press look for another odoriferous affair and turn to horse racing? That's entirely possible, and with the Breeders' Cup being the Olympics of horse racing and just around the corner, our sport is on thinner ice than Caribbean hockey.

Horse racing cannot afford to give even a hint of impropriety by the competitors, or indifference by the regulators, of the Breeders' Cup. Safeguards to assure the utmost integrity must be exercised with unrelenting diligence, and then, if a medication offense should emerge, at least the industry is not in an indefensible posture of confusion as regulators of American sports appear to be at this time.

We can learn from the fiascos of the Olympics. Such events as the Romanian hammer thrower, two days after her federation had been informed of her testing positive, being grabbed by officials as she entered the stadium to compete, are almost comical. And the USOC transporting shotput champion C.J. Hunter to Sydney, months after he had tested positive, is inexcusable.

One advantage horse racing has over athletics is the players don't administer drugs to themselves. Trainers, veterinarians, and other aspiring thieves do that, so it should be easier to keep the equine athletes pharmaceutically clean, at least for the Breeders' Cup. To do so, these minimum requirements could be established:

  • Quarantine all horses in a high security area prior to their races for a minimum of four days, or longer if necessary to analyze pre-race blood and urine samples.
  • Security areas must be restricted to essential personnel with special credentials, and have constant video surveillance around the clock. Ideally, security areas would be limited to approximately 20 horses each in four to five separate confines to facilitate maximum control.
  • Practicing veterinarians must be barred from the quarantine area and prohibited from treating any horse after the final pre-race test samples are taken. Only an official veterinarian can administer medication subsequent to this time.
  • Trainers and their veterinarians must be given a list of acceptable therapeutic medications, 60 days in advance, with a recommended time and quantity for administration. Acceptable levels of these medications in pre-race tests, that have been determined to have no pharmacological effect upon performance, shall not disqualify a horse from racing. Any metabolites of any other substance that appears in a pre-race test will result in the scratch of a horse and loss of all entry fees.

Finally, let's learn from previous mistakes. It has been said: "Good judgment is a result of experience, and experience is a result of bad judgment." In racing and athletics, there has been no shortage of bad judgment.

Retired trainer John W. Russell is a native of Great Britain living in Southern California.