Deja Vu All Over Again - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the July 21, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell “The medication issue has been a major one in racing for more than 20 years. Knee-jerk reaction...will not answer the public reaction aspect, nor solve the basic problem. It cries for more research, more reason, less ignorance, no apathy.”

Sound familiar? The above quote could easily have come from the hearing conducted July 12 by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in Washington, D.C. The hearing was held to gather more testimony regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs in horse racing.

The quote, however, came from a “What’s Going on Here” column written by former editor Kent Hollingsworth that appeared in the June 11, 1979, issue of The Blood-Horse. At the time, the racing industry was reacting to an exposé by 60 Minutes regarding breakdowns and phenylbutazone. And here we are 33 years later, wrestling with the same issues—sensationalistic reporting by the mainstream media, calls for more research, and promises that the industry will develop a set of uniform regulations and penalties that all racing states will adopt (we swear!).

The industry has created model rules through the Association of Racing Commissioners International, and most racing jurisdictions have adopted some variation of them. Because racing is regulated by the states, however, commissions and/or legislatures are free to give drug withdrawal times and penalties their own spin. Take the bronchodilator clenbuterol, for example. In California, the withdrawal time (the time between administration and post time) is four days. In Delaware, Illinois, and Michigan it’s seven days, and in Maryland it’s three days. In 2010 the RCI Model Rules Committee approved lowering the allowable level of race-day non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone from 5 micrograms per milliliter to 2 micrograms. Minnesota just revised its racing medication rules and left the legal Bute level at 5 micrograms.

They are model rules, all right, but not models of consistency.

Four months ago, The Blood-Horse (issue dated March 31) ran a package of stories devoted to examining the feasibility of a national racing office and discovered it’s unlikely the sport will ever have an all-encompassing league headquarters that coordinates TV schedules, manages a national marketing campaign, and is responsible for implementing rules and enforcement. It doesn’t mean, however, the sport cannot have some version of this ideal by endorsing a national policy for medication rules and penalties. The idea of implementing a federal guideline for medication and penalties was floated during the recent congressional hearing.

Is that the solution? Maybe. Supporters of federal guidelines say it will ensure consistency and eliminate the ability of states such as Minnesota to play outside the rules. Opponents say the existing differences in rules among a vast majority of racing states are not significant enough—that they all embrace the spirit of the regulations—and the number of the worst violators is so few that federal intervention is simply not warranted.

This we know: The racing industry has had its opportunities time and time again to create uniformity and, however close it may be now, it is still short of the goal. And we’ve run out of time. Either the industry gets ahead of this runaway train and drafts its own national guidelines to be enforced through a national compact or it risks having federal guidelines thrust upon it that may wrongfully identify all medications as “performance-enhancing” and potentially tie compliance with simulcasting.

The risks of further inaction cannot be overstated. Without progress, we may not have a viable sport to defend in another 30 years. 

Editor's Note:  California has tightened up its rule on clenbuterol. Effective July 18, the withdrawal time is 21 days.

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