(Originally published in the August 29, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)
Though what he was speaking about had nothing to do with the sale of Thoroughbreds, listening to Daily Racing Form publisher Steve Crist Aug. 24 at The Jockey Club Round Table made me recall the 1983 Keeneland July yearling sale. The final price of the sale topper appeared as $200,000 because no one ever thought an eighth digit would be needed on the bid board. Actual hammer price: $10.2 million.
The blog software being used by Daily Racing Form on its Web site never experienced a problem with only allowing 100 comments on a post until Crist asked readers how they perceived medication issues in Thoroughbred racing. Because of that 100 comment limit, Crist had to re-post the blog entry six times. Final number of comments: 550.
Having been asked to speak at the Round Table about the perception of medication issues by racing fans, Crist decided to go directly to the source. He got an earful.
“The response was astounding: in its volume, in its tone, and in its content,” Crist told those in attendance.
And, as he pointed out, these comments were not “the complaints of horseplayers who had just lost a photo, but rather the “sentiments of some of your most loyal and most thoughtful customers.”
Crist read a sampling:
“Drugs in racing are out of control; the inmates are running the asylum.”
“There must be swifter, harsher justice, and more punitive penalties—zero tolerance, three strikes and you’re out of the game.”
“Punish the owners.”
As Crist said, these are “our fans’ perception of what racing needs to do about medication.”
But something interesting happened while Crist was receiving the comments. On July 16, Lone Star Park stewards, following guidelines established by the Texas Racing Commission, handed down a six-month suspension of leading trainer Steve Asmussen because a post-race urine test showed a metabolite of a local anesthetic in a maiden winner in 2008.
“I asked the respondents who had already posted comments, without agreeing or disagreeing with them, if what they really wanted was what they had been suggesting,” Crist said. “Assuming the suspension, which is under appeal, was sustained: Did they really want the trainer to be thrown out of the game? Did they really want all of his horses removed from their stalls and turned over to outside trainers rather than his assistants? Should all of the owners he trains for also be sanctioned? Should the hundreds of horses who have run under his name this year be barred from competition? Should Rachel Alexandra not be permitted to race again this year?”
Only a few, Crist said, even tried to answer.
What he took away from the exercise, Crist said, is that our fans are “completely confused” because “we make virtually no distinction between therapeutic medications that have a proper and even humane role in the treatment of these animals, and the abusive use of serious drugs. We make no distinction between marginal overages of medicine and the deliberate use of nefarious chemicals.”
In other words, the industry needs threshold levels, and the adoption of those levels by all 38 jurisdictions that regulate racing in North America. In addition, standardized testing methods for laboratories would ensure that uniformity not only exists regarding the level at which a drug would not be considered performance enhancing, but also the proper method for testing for such medications.
These ideas have been discussed for years, but Crist’s sampling shows many fans yearn for a day when they can be implemented.
Other sports, Crist said, such as baseball and cycling, are doing brisk business because, “After spending years in denial, officials of both of those sports eventually came clean and said something simple and straightforward that racing’s leaders need to say: We have a problem with medication, and we’re going to do something about it.”
Crist was asked to speak about perception, which he did. But that racing has a problem with medication is reality.