National Focus Needed - by Eric Mitchell

 (Originally published in the December 3, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell The only issue in North America more disturbing to horsemen overseas than allowing race-day medication is what’s seen as a too casual approach to regulation and enforcement.

We held a dozen conversations with horsemen and regulatory officials in Australia for an article comparing that country’s drug policy and training regimes to those found in the United States (see page 3420). Any discussion about enforcement would lead inevitably to Rick Dutrow Jr. How, the questioning typically began, could a trainer who had been sanctioned so many times (64 violations since 1979) still be allowed to run horses?

Dutrow was suspended last February for 90 days for a positive drug test and for having hypodermic needles in his barn. The New York-based trainer has denied any know-ledge of or involvement in the violations and has appealed the suspension.

This latest suspension stirred up a lot of negative publicity, so the New York State Racing and Wagering Board came back in November of this year and tried to ban Dutrow for 10 years, citing his lengthy history of suspensions and fines. Dutrow, again, has been granted a stay by a New York judge.

Since Nov. 25, Dutrow has been on a roll at Aqueduct, winning at a 52% clip. His winning percentage for the year is 27%. It is doubtful many owners—if any—are taking horses out of his barn.

It does boggle the minds of people outside the U.S. that it takes so long to resolve these violations—to weigh the facts and issue a binding judgment. On one hand we do have due process, which provides a number of remedies to someone who feels wrongly accused. But the process is also painfully slow and does not offer much of a deterrent to offenders. After all, it was Dutrow who a few years back managed to align one of his suspensions with a Caribbean vacation.

It is America’s fractured racing infrastructure that presents the biggest challenge to regulation and enforcement.

Horse racing is a gambling enterprise, and in this country the states control gambling laws. It is highly unlikely we will ever dissolve 32 racing commissions and merge them into a national regulatory body such as the Australian Racing Board or the British Horseracing Board. But what if we could separate the gambling aspects—takeout, race days, pari-mutuel licenses, etc.—from the behavior-regulating aspects? What if we created a body in charge of only drug testing, licensing for owners and jockeys, and enforcement?

The concept has been floated before. A national body responsible for licensing and enforcement would allow owners, trainers, and jockeys to get one license that is good throughout the U.S. All horsemen would adhere to one set of rules and be subject to one set of penalties, no matter where they race. All efforts the Association of Racing Commissioners International and the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium put into creating model rules could have immediate impact, rather than be subjected to the drawn-out agendas of racing commissions and legislatures.

Would enforcement happen more quickly? Not likely, but it would avoid the problems circulating about Dutrow’s 10-year ban and why it is unlikely to stick. No one can argue the penalty is fair and even-handed because no one in the U.S. has ever gotten a 10-year ban. Where is the precedent for such action? It doesn’t exist. No court is going to look at 32 years of hand-slapping for similar infractions then suddenly allow professional exile.

Regardless of what we do with race-day medication, the U.S. needs regulatory consistency and unity, and we need it nationally.

Returning Stars

Not too long ago racing bemoaned the loss of its stars to the breeding shed. So it is energizing to see so many top runners coming back in 2012. Most recently the owners of Mission Impazible said their graded stakes winner would be racing again next year.

“We had several stallion offers but really wanted to give him the opportunity to get that grade I. We feel he’s capable,” said Randy Gullatt, the manager of Twin Creeks Farm, which is owned by Steve Davison. Gullatt and Davison run Twin Creeks Racing Stables, which owns the 4-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song and offers racing partnerships.

Mission Impazible, trained by Todd Pletcher, will be sent to the Palm Meadows Training Center and aimed for the Donn Handicap (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park.

Other returning stars include Woodward Stakes (gr. I) winner Havre de Grace, Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Flat Out, Cigar Mile Handicap (gr. I) winner To Honor and Serve, and overseas the undefeated multiple group I winner and Cartier Horse of the Year Frankel.


Leave a Comment:

Barry Irwin

Eric, there is a fellow living in a parallel universe that runs the Breeders' Cup that says foreign horsemen and breeders are in no way put off by American horses that race on drugs. I don't know who he is talking to, but I go abroad on a regular basis and I have never met a horseman over there with this same point of view. Mostly Europeans have lost respect for our horses because they trainer and race on drugs. Also, a horse named Animal Kingdom is returning next year, although he will be pointed for Dubai.

29 Nov 2011 8:26 PM

I have to wonder about things ... like how John Veitch, whose career until Life at Ten is essentially flawless, could be summarily shipped down the road in a situation filled with shades of grey while a trainer with years of repeated violations is reinstated time and time again. How come Mr. Veitch's livelihood is so much less valuable than Mr. Dutrow's?

As for the horses returning next year, it's about time we got back to letting horses be RACE-horses (which is what they were bred to do, I always thought) before they go on to perpetuate their gene-pools. Soundness and durability count as much as ability. If more horses follow the lead of these sporting individuals, maybe we can begin to reclaim the iron horse. Huge factors contributing to soundness are genetic. Horses racing beyond their 3- and 4-year old seasons are proving that they really have what it takes. Hats off to these owners and trainers - and to the game performers they send out for us to cheer for!

29 Nov 2011 9:10 PM

because of Dutrow we have to have a national commission. perfect sense.

30 Nov 2011 12:34 AM

its an absolute disgrace that dutrow is still allowed near horses even worse is he got the verdict but while waiting on an appeal he is allowed to train this is the aspect that has u.s racing a laughing stock all around the world the same as biancone been allowed,no wonder the sport is in decline because people like these are still allowed in the sport,i wouldnt let them near any animal

30 Nov 2011 3:27 AM

Thanks Eric for continuing to focus on the prickly subject of uniform rules for medication and conduct in the American racing industry. Rick Dutrow is the poster child for what's wrong with our sport here. Yes, he's the extreme, but in a way, his story in the end may help rather than hinder some kind of revision nationally of the raceday meds. From the railbird to the casual fan, no one thinks he should continue to get away with thumbing his nose at the rules (except maybe for the unscrupulous owners who continue to place their horses with him!). Let's hope that is the case and the momentum to get the raceday meds out of our sport continues to fruition, along with a revision of the vet business model that bills for how many shots vets administer on raceday rather than professional services they deliver (Jockey Club Roundtable recommendation).

Question:  Is it possible that the regulatory body that handed down the 10-year suspension could revise their ruling so that it might be more in line with what the appeals bodies might accept?  What if they gave him a 3-year suspension, or a 4-year one (as happened to a trainer in the UK who was forced to retire)? While they may chafe at having to do this, surely everyone would see it as a sincere effort on the part of the industry to get this (expletive deleted!) out of the sport?

30 Nov 2011 11:13 AM

Eric, The solution stated succinctly is "Too many liberal boards of stewards and racing commissions!  

02 Dec 2011 6:25 AM

While a national commision undoubtedly could have very positive effects upon racing, the urgency to reform our image requires more immediate action.  Placing more pressure upon state authorities to implement zero tolerance drug policies is an action which may yield a more immediate response.  This pressure may be applied through letters, phone calls, and attendance at commission meetings and hearings.  Most stewards are open to discussions regarding policies as well.  The public at large views racing as a jaded and probably dirty sport.  Inside the industry, this aspect is not given the credence it deserves.  Action is necessary, and a national body is too far off to forestall the negative consequences of that general perception.

04 Dec 2011 12:02 AM
Old Old Cat

Your column brings up a lot of topics:  raceday medication, illegal drugs, Dutrow getting away with murder, the overseas view of our situation.  While they may all be (drug)related, their impacts and solutions are not.  To whit:  getting rid of Lasix has nothing to do with Dutrow's problems, except for the purse he lost when heavy traffic from New York to Maryland precluded him from properly administering Lasix at the prescribed 4 hour time limit.  The only way to address these issues is independently, one at a time.  Each issue must stand on its own merit.  

For Lasix the first question is: Is it a medication, or is it a drug?  When we say drugs, people envision heroin,cocaine, steroids, etc.  All illegal or harmful.  When we say medicine we are all warm and fuzzy.  I think that any discussion on Lasix should only reference "medication" and not "drugs".  It is dishonest for people to switch to words with unsavory connotations to denigrate the topic being discussed.  I think that Lasix is a legitimate medication, (I had to take it for my congestive heart failure), and an agreement should be that it can only be administered by an approved track veternarian at the proper time, and that any discussion of its merit should proceed from there.  I think that horse racing in America is the most strenuous discipline for horses, and that opinions from overseas with less strenuous racing should not be entertained.  The Asussies and the Euros can race their horses for 2.5 miles over undulating terrain in thirty horse fields, but that matters not to American racing on the hard dirt/yeilding all-weather/sun-baked firm to mushy turf, at distances from 5 to 10 furlongs.  American racing stands on its own.  Our rules stand on their own.  If we ban Lasix, not one solitary foreigner is going to ship to America to run in a six furlong race on the dirt.

One other point that people seem to ignore.  American racing has evolved to the shorter distances long before Lasix was invented.  Lasix has not caused the "speed" oriented breeding frenzy that some are complaining about.  The American Thoroughbred has been genetically crafted for a long period of time.

05 Jul 2012 4:07 PM

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