In a moment of what Yogi Berra might have called "deja vu all over again," the Maryland Racing Commission on Oct. 19 adopted the Association of Racing Commissioners International model rules on medication penalties—rules that most observers thought the commission had adopted back in 2014.
By unanimous vote the commission directed its stewards, "as a policy" rather than as guidance, to follow the ARCI model rules when assessing penalties for medication violations going forward, said commission executive director Mike Hopkins.
Oddly enough the decision to tie up one of the state medication policy's loose ends came on the same day that that policy's staunchest advocate on the MRC, former chairman Bruce Quade, announced he was leaving the commission effective Dec. 1.
Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and vice chairman of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, said after the meeting that the state's horsemen are "absolutely" on board with the change.
Maryland was one of the most aggressive proponents of the national uniform medication program developed by the RMTC and advocated by the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI). That program has four basic tenets:
* third-party administration of Lasix (furosemide);
* a limited list of (now 30) permitted therapeutic medications;
* accredited testing laboratories; and
* a multiple medication violation point system to enhance penalties on repeat offenders.
The ARCI released the uniform program in July 2013, and by June of 2014, the MRC had adopted all four of those tenets.
What it had never done, however, was adopt the underlying penalties recommended by the ARCI. That it had failed to do so first came to light last December in a case involving Corvus, the upset winner of the October 2015 Maryland Million Nursery. Corvus was found to have the prohbited vaso-dilator isoxsuprine in his system.
Then, the stewards instituted, and the MRC upheld, merely a $500 fine to trainer Katy Voss instead of the ARCI-recommended $1,000 fine, disqualification of the horse, and redistribution of all purse moneys. In part, commissioners said at the time, their reluctance to overturn the stewards' call stemmed from their failure to realize the MRC had not yet adopted the underlying guidelines.
Instead, as it turned out, the stewards were following state medication policy guidelines last revised in 1999 in assessing penalties. Both the drug classification system and some of the recommended penalties in the older document differ from the more modern rules.
"We adopted the list of drugs; what we didn't adopt was the penalty phase," Quade said Oct. 19. "It's what we didn't do two years ago."
Analysis of the Maryland stewards' rulings by The Racing Biz found as many as eight instances in 2016 when stewards gave lighter penalties to violators than those recommended by ARCI guidelines.
Though the ARCI guidelines are just that—guidelines—and do allow for the application of discretion in the presence of aggravating or mitigating circumstances, MRC chairman John McDaniel suggested that these frequent variances from the recommended guidelines played a role in the commission's Oct. 19 decision and will play a role going forward in what appears likely to be an MRC effort to limit the stewards' discretion on medication cases.
"It's not that we would feel [the stewards] were grossly negligent in any way, it's just that, there's inconsistency," he said after the meeting. "You find it in judges, you find it in any kind of judicial situation. In our case, we think less discretion is good—not overreaching in that regard, but also uniformity of rules."
"The next step is to decide where the discretionary powers should lie," said commissioner Tom Bowman, a veterinarian who heads the MRC's medication policy review committee. "Are the stewards the appropriate place?"
But that decision was put off Oct. 19 and may not be dealt with before the end of the year. It may not be made without controversy. The MTHA's Foreman said he believes the current system, in which stewards exercise discretion and cases may be appealed to the Commission, "works well" and is not "broken... by any stretch."
With the meeting nearing its end, Quade announced his decision to leave the commission.
"I want to tell you how much I was honored and privileged to be appointed and how much I enjoyed my time on the commission," he said. "It's been an honor to serve with all of you."
McDaniel said Quade "deserves a victory lap for what he's done. He's one of the best chairman we've ever had."