Keep Up the Heat - By Eric Mitchell

The U.S. Congressional hearings are over. Network camera crews are documenting other stories. PETA demonstrators have gone back to protesting fur coats.

The sting of Eight Belles’ death on Derby day last year is waning, so the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and The Jockey Club no longer roll out press releases with the same frequency about new programs to improve safety, eliminate the overuse and abuse of drugs, and trumpet efforts to shore up racing’s integrity. While the Eight Belles tragedy attracted a lot of intense and unpleasant scrutiny, it lit a bonfire under industry leaders who produced some admirable results within a year. Most notably, all North American racing jurisdictions now ban the use of anabolic and androgenic steroids within at least 30 days of a race; and, the NTRA has implemented its racetrack accreditation program, with 10 tracks approved so far. The accreditation program, which is administered by the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance, has led to substantial changes at some tracks. One track is now directly affiliated with a racehorse retirement facility and another has implemented pre-race testing for total carbon dioxide (the test for milkshaking).

These accomplishments and others were heralded during last month’s Jockey Club Round Table with lots of well-deserved congratulations.

But here’s the kicker. We can’t stop. We can’t let up the intensity just because the protestors and the cameras have gone away.\

During the Round Table it was stated that in one year the industry has “effectively eliminated the use of all anabolic steroids in the training and racing of Thoroughbreds in this country.” True, rules were adopted to ban race-day use of steroids, but to say steroid use has actually been eliminated is a stretch. Consider the comments by Dr. Scott Palmer, chairman of the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Racing Committee, who said our current medication policy, though well-intentioned, is compromised by a lack of uniformity and financial support in multiple racing jurisdictions. Here is the heart of Palmer’s message the industry needs to embrace:  The time for extended diplomacy is over. To the extent that medication reform can help save our industry, we must act now with deliberate speed and conviction.

Do I hear an amen?

Yes, the industry has made progress, but it’s still behind the curve. Deliberate speed and conviction is needed on all fronts.

NTRA president Alex Waldrop said he visited 25 industry leaders last week in California and believes no one is backing off. Maybe the overt display of urgency following Eight Belles’ Derby is gone, but the will to reform remains strong. It will be the Safety and Integrity Alliance’s responsibility to keep the pressure up, Waldrop said. He added that the gains made to date are modest but are getting noticed outside the Thoroughbred industry and are rebuilding racing’s reputation among sports fans. A recent NTRA survey of 1,200 general American sports fans and 608 people identified as “core fans” shows a slightly better impression of Thoroughbred racing now than existed a year ago and a belief that the efforts to improve safety and integrity are sincere. The survey estimates 44 million sports fans are aware of the Safety and Integrity Alliance. Really? Forty-four million seems high, as it’s one in seven U.S. residents. The survey also shows 57% of sports fans watched the Kentucky Derby this year. Out of an estimated 153 million U.S. sports fans, that’s more than 87 million people. Nielsen reported 16.3 million watched the Derby telecast on NBC this year. Were the rest in sports bars, Las Vegas sports books, and at tracks and off-track betting sites? Maybe it’s possible. I’ve been assured the statistics and methodology of the survey are solid.

All the more reason to push hard for reforms. We have a lot of potential fans out there watching.

Eric Mitchell is Executive Editor for Digital Media at The Blood-Horse

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