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.

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