Punish the Cheaters - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the August 18, 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

Amidst all the celebration of The Jockey Club’s recent marketing efforts and increased TV exposure for Thoroughbred racing, one message came through clearly at the Aug. 12 Round Table Conference: Racing as a sport will continue floundering and may not survive if it doesn’t punish the cheaters.

One of the more sobering slides shown during the annual state of the industry conference Aug. 12 was part of a presentation by Matt Iuliano, executive vice president and executive director for TJC. The slide entitled “Crime Pays” showed the total purse money earned by trainers who had violated drug rules from 2005 through 2011 compared with total fines they had received. The trainers earned $15.4 million in purses and paid out $1.4 million in fines. Penalties are no longer deterrents; they have become merely a cost of doing business.

While some will debate whether the industry is closer to uniformity on drug testing than is believed, no one disputes the significant disparity in enforcement. During the same 2005 to 2011 period, 20% of the violations that resulted in a fine in one state were handled with a warning in another. The fines for comparable violations also varied as much as 500% from state to state.

The good news is that the worst offenders are a relatively small group. Among 12,801 licensed trainers between 2005 and 2011, only about 200 (1.5%) were cited for committing four or more drug violations, and these trainers were responsible for 33% of all violations during the seven-year period.

TJC chairman Ogden “Dinny” Phipps was right to ask those attending the Round Table if they were happy with allowing 1.5% of the licensed trainers tarnish the public perception of the sport.

Tougher penalties are a key feature of TJC’s recently proposed “Reformed Racing Medication Rules” that includes a new penalty structure based on points. The more points a trainer accumulates, the more severe the penalties become for each subsequent violation.

One of the most significant changes in the new system is that every violation requires a redistribution of the purse money. The goal is to start changing behavior. Iuliano noted that one of the most frequent violations is with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers. Research done by TJC shows one out of four trainers cited for an NSAID drug violation will commit another. Under the existing rules a trainer could have up to seven drug violations and not lose any purse money or even serve any sort of suspension. In an example offered by Iuliano, one trainer with seven adjudicated drug violations earned $130,545 in purse money and paid fines totaling only $5,250. Under the new proposed penalty structure, this same trainer would lose all the purse money, be fined $30,000, and have to serve suspensions totaling 307 days.

With so few trainers committing most of the violations, all of racing’s shareholders should adopt the same attitude of Olympic athletes who have largely embraced out-of-competition testing that is conducted at their homes, at training centers, or even while they are on vacation.

“Some say it is over-the-top and intrusive, but this is what the athletes have said they want,” said Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “They want the right to compete by the rules.”

Racing must put real teeth into its rules.

The Round Table was part pep rally. A presentation on marketing efforts and new online fan initiatives wrapped up with a high-energy video of action on the track before and during the Triple Crown, all set to the adrenaline-fueled music of Van Halen.

The multimedia hype will certainly attract attention, but the efforts will ultimately fail if people believe our sport is soft on cheaters.

27 Comments

Leave a Comment:

lunar spook

what about a lifetime ban on some of these trainers ? if the sport really means to get tough on the problem , why not ? its the same core group (we know who they are) that cause 99% of the problems! like baseball 3 strikes and your out !

14 Aug 2012 12:24 PM
nu-fan

If the horse racing industry wants to attract and keep new fans, like me, they need to start by getting rid of their shadier trainers who contribute to the unsafe conditions and health of their horses.  I agree with lunar spook in that monetary fines are not enough.  These trainers need to be kicked out of every position in U.S. horse racing--forever!  But, I would not give them a third chance; second infraction and they are out!

14 Aug 2012 1:39 PM
lunar spook

nu-fan ,  your right! 2 chances is plenty! as a fan my first concern is ALWAYS the welfare of the horse, they are at our mercy for our entertainment , the least we owe them is repect for thier well being !

14 Aug 2012 2:40 PM
Karen in Indiana

1.5% of the trainers commit 33% of the offenses. Wow!

So why, when Rick Dutrow was caught so blatantly thumbing his nose at the rules, was he let off with a minor slap on the hand? Why is he even in practice at this point? And, more importantly, why do owners keep sending horses to him? It is not because he's such a good horseman. I can name two off the top of my head that he came close to ruining - Gran Estreno and Rail Trip - and who knows how many more could have done better with someone else.

14 Aug 2012 4:30 PM
Deltalady

I am very pleased and impressed with the leadership the Jockey Club is providing for the sport. Recommendations for health and welfare of the equine athlete, business ventures that support the sport, its PR efforts, and basically all of its goals are those I share and believe in. What is missing is real direct action toward implementing and enforcement of its recommendations. Holding the control over the registration of each and every equine athlete, it seems to me the Jockey Club holds the keys to pulling all 38 racing jurisdictions in line. Until the Jockey Club uses all the trumps it has in its hand, there will be no real progress toward the elimination of raceday meds and no real reform of the drug and medication rules! Control by the Jockey Club is much more preferable to me than control at the federal level. An attorney and small breeder, Amanda Simmons, had this to say recently: "It is my belief that The Jockey Club is the only organization within our industry that has the inherent power to actually do something big and bold for the greater good. It should not be afraid of flexing its muscle so that it can create a nationwide, level playing field." www.paulickreport.com/.../the-jockey-club-s-inherent-power-to-regulate

14 Aug 2012 5:14 PM
kincsem

So agreed! Why is Patrick Biancone given a license after the cobra venom was found in his barn (a year's suspension is a joke ). And why stop at drug violations? Why was Frank Monteleone allowed to keep a trainer's license after he defrauded two owners out of $600,000 by claiming to purchase two European race horses (which he never did) and then was found guilty by a US judge in Nevada? Why is Julio Canani still a trainer after he was found guilty of defrauding a client? Why are the findings of a court of law NOT a good enough for racing "officials"?

14 Aug 2012 6:08 PM
fb0252

200 trainers out of 13,000 over 5 years.  drug violations. presume that includes therapeutic overages.  Sounds like much ado about nothing to me.  How about it Mr. Phipps?

14 Aug 2012 10:41 PM
judgebork

History clearly demonstrates the deterrent power of "EFFECTIVE" punishment.  Emphasis on the word

"EFFECTIVE!  Anything less will not produce the desired result.

15 Aug 2012 9:42 AM
deb

Drugs kill and the trainers who use them and have a horse or jockey that die due to it must be punished with jail time.  No more of "thats racing". Why do we allow this in our society?  When will someone take a stand and say no more to these people?  Racing needs good people in it, not the ones who leave a bad taste in the mouth.....people need to be treated with respect and consideration along with the horses in their care. NOW that should be "thats racing".

15 Aug 2012 10:39 AM
Wrensflight

I agree with the lifetime ban. This is not just about the reputation of racing but, more importantly, about the welfare of the horses. There also needs to be enforcement of penalties at all levels of racing and not just at the big tracks or major stakes races.

15 Aug 2012 12:20 PM
nu-fan

Judgebork--you are right.  The word here is "effective" and, so far, the horse racing industry has been applying bandaid solutions instead of truly effective reform.  And, what happens if an industry does not monitor itself?  The federal government steps in.  Deltalady--I wish that The Jockey Club did flex its muscle but how many of their members are so beholden to the industry that they are afraid to really step forward?  The federal government has one big additional advantage:  They can set standards for the entire country rather than on a state-by-state basis.  (Think New Mexico here and Ruidoso Race Track!  Would you really trust them to set their own standards?)  But, again, it has distressed me to see the high number of horses that have broken down on the race tracks--and euthanized.  This keeps me from wanting to watch races (on TV or at the tracks) as often as I have; and,I have heard others express the same feelings.  And, the racing industry wonders why attendance is down?  One reason is just this:  The amount of information that is available and the educational level of our society has increased tremendously.  More people are more aware of what is happening on our tracks--and they do not like what they see.  

15 Aug 2012 12:49 PM
sceptre

Yes, get rid of the cheaters, but don't think for a minute that this will result in any meaningful improvement to the welfare of the horses. Medications/drug overages are very rarely the cause (proximal or otherwise) of breakdowns and fatal breakdowns. It is their injuries and breakdowns that should be the topic of focus, and the push should be for far greater oversight-much greater scrutiny and consistent, thorough evaluation on a frequent basis.  

15 Aug 2012 11:30 PM
nu-fan

From what I understand, medications may be performance enhancing drugs, which may also include drugs given to mask those causes that may result in injury.  Strong pain relievers can do that.  If a horse has an injury and no pain relievers are given before the race, then, it becomes more apparent that the horse cannot run and the jockeys and stewarts may scratch the horse from that race.  I'd really like some equine veterinarians to join in on this conversation and let the rest of us know whether this panel's discussion is just a smoke screen for meaningful reform or if the panel's suggestions are, at least, one step toward it.  (By the way, besides the trainers being held accountable, I believe that the owners must also accept full responsiblity in the people they hire to train or care for their horses. The owners should be part of the reforms that need to take place.  If they did't hire those questionable trainers....

16 Aug 2012 1:32 PM
sceptre

Face the facts, the training and racing of thoroughbred racehorses poses a constant threat to their well-being. It is the rare racehorse who retires unscathed. Not something people want to hear or believe but, nevertheless, the likely truth. This is the physiologic reality, and as such should be embraced and dealt with head on. Those who instead focus upon drug violations, race-day salix administration, the pros vs cons of certain drugs, etc. are skirting the most important issue because they are either ill-informed, or prefer to rationalize their "passion". Some drugs, no doubt, contribute to the harm, but their effect is minimal when compared to the inherently injurious nature of the sport. Racing-with or without drugs-poses a constant risk to the musculoskeletal, GI, etc. well-being of the horse. Every effort should be taken to minimize this risk, and drugs are far from the starting point. The status quo won't be changed by tinkering on the fringes.      

16 Aug 2012 11:26 PM
nu-fan

Sceptre, I've seen your comments before on horseracing topics.  You sound very well-informed.  Other than abolish this "sport" do you have any suggestions on what this panel or others should be concentrating on to increase the safety and well-being of our racehorses?  I read a UT San Diego article, recently, that noted that five horses had died on the Del Mar Race Track within a two-week period during the last month or so.  That level of injury and death is not acceptable in my view.  And, I believe that most in our society would find these deaths to be abhorrent but the mainstream media does not report much about horseracing.  I doubt that most people would expect that injuries will never occur but it is the frequency of these injuries (and the too frequent euthanizing)that tends to be the issue.

17 Aug 2012 1:52 PM
kincsem

sceptre,

Fair enough, but baby steps are all that a bone-headed, stubborn, reluctant-to-change industry will allow.It would make me happy to adopt more European standards, where trainers have to have their own "yard", or training facility. Having 1200-1500 horses train in just 4-5 hours at American tracks is crazy and accentuates the rushed, unprofessional training given to the horses.

17 Aug 2012 3:37 PM
sceptre

nu-fan:

I suppose, for openers, I'd push for mandatory, INDEPENDENT, veterinary oversight of a very thorough nature for all horses in training. Such oversight should include (but, be far from limited to) routine sophisticated radiographs and ultrasounds. Several noted vets have stated that over 90% of fatal breakdowns came as a direct consequence of pre-existing pathologies. So, every effort should be made to discover these pathologies-prior to breakdown. Unfortunately, proper preventitive measures could be cost prohibitive, would likely result in great erosion of starters/race and number of races, and the exodus of a majority of owners who could ill-afford so many horses on the "shelf". I very much doubt that this dynamic would change appreciably even under the most ideal training situations.    

17 Aug 2012 11:07 PM
Common Sense

OK, you say that the top 200 trainer commit 33% of the violations. Forgot one fact, how many horses did these top 200 trainers run in that time period. Talk about field size, you would be lucky to have 3-4 horses per race if that. When dealing with percentages, you have to use human error here of 1% and if you did that I promice you it would be alot higher than 1.5% with the number of horses they run at several different tracks all on the same day.

18 Aug 2012 7:14 AM
JAJ

Oh, common Sceptre, let's be realistic.  Of course catastrophic breakdowns are a direct result of pre-existing pathologies.  Are you suggesting that x-rays are going to show up that stuff?  X-rays are only going to show fractures. It will take scintigraphy to show the bone bruising that leads to the catastrophic fractures and that costs at least $1000 for each end (front or rear).  It is not something you do unless you have a reason to.

You don't ultrasound a horse that has no problems, either.  Sure, ultrasounds will show a lesion, but horsemanship will tell you before any ultrasound will that your horse has a problem--heat, filling, pressure, lameness, choppy movement--whatever, you know there is something amiss long before any ultrasound shows a lesion.  You just don't ultrasound tight, cold legs--it tells you nothing.

I expect that in the near future we will be able to know which PERFECTLY SOUND horses are developing problems that will lead to a potential catastrophic breakdown, but we are not there yet.  I wish we were.

18 Aug 2012 11:20 PM
an ole railbird

you can change rules, impose new guide lines, that further send the cost of training, in the upward sprial. you can do away with what little medications, that a trainer has to work with.

you can appoint people with the most integrity, to the highest offices that you can invent.

 you can form prayer groups, or hold any kind of rituals, that you want.

and you will not change the facts of nature.

THE FACTS OF NATURE?

the facts of nature are. campare a horse, to an automobile.

the horses body is a model t. we have put a corvette engine in it. we have put postive traction in it.

we havechanged the fuel systems to the most efficient avilable.& installed a computer controlled ingintion system.

with all of this,added power, we still are running on ,wooden spoke wheels.

 "its not nice to fool mother nature'

but we do it everyday.

   "an ole railbird"

19 Aug 2012 10:23 AM
sceptre

JAJ:

Your retort (to my post) implies--by what it doesn't state--that we are helpless (at present) to reduce the rate of fatal breakdowns and injuries. Why else would you focus only on the language of some of my suggestions?

But, before I get into that, you are very much mistaken to believe that it is taken as a given (by others) that catastrophic breakdowns "are a result of pre-existing pathologies" (fact is, not all are, only the vast majority). Have you ever heard the phrase "...took a bad step"? How often is this given as the cause for a breakdown? For example, how many out there were (are) certain that this alone was the cause of Eight Belles' demise? So, spare me (us) with your "Of course(s)"...Now, for openers, I didn't use the term "X-rays" (it was your term), rather I said "sophisticated radiographs". You mentioned scintigraphy. Is it worth debating whether or not scintigraphy could be classified as a sophisticated radiograph? It employs radiographic isotopes. For that matter, it is not all that uncommon for a simple x-ray to detect a bony lesion not evident to the naken eye, touch, or visual soundness exam of a trainer, or even a vet. Re-ultrasounds; they too can detect subtle soft tissue lesions that can be missed, or incorrectly assumed to be something other. And, do you really believe that every trainer calls in the vet, or even after hearing the vet's advice--re recommended studies-- follows that advice? Time for you to "...be realistic".

That all said, I do agree that I could have ommitted the word "routine" and, instead, substituted "at the discretion of a highly competent independent vet". This would save some $-- but, as I already acknowledged, the cost would still be prohibitive...Your last paragraph greatly puzzles me. You say the you expect, in the near future, that we will be able to detect--you said, "know"-- these developing problems which lead to fatal breakdowns. Did you mean "know" through inexpensive means? So, what exactly is your point? Have we the means now to drastically reduce the incidence of fatal breakdowns, or not? If you agree we do, is it then only the expense which prompted your retort? Are you suggesting that we wait, and do nothing, until some pie-in-the-sky-miracle, cheap, method is discovered-soon in the future?

It is not for me to determine what are the best protocols for adequately (or something approaching adequacy) monitoring these racehorses. This is the province of the best trained and most highly gifted veterinaians out there. So, perhaps this should be our focus. Reach out to them, question them, and hear what they have to say. And then, let's begin what must follow-THE MORAL DEBATE.      

19 Aug 2012 1:04 PM
sceptre

an ole railbird:

In the past, you and I have tended to agree, and I think your last post also concurs with much of my message here. But, while you state the facts-as you see them-you neglect (perhaps deliberately) to suggest the path then to follow. The most obvious assumption one could draw from your post is that racing should be abolished. Is this your position? For me, this is certainly reasonable, perhaps the one most reasonable and ethical. I've fought with it within myself for years. I do, however, feel that we have the means (but likely, not the financial means, nor the desire) to drastically improve the safety and well-being of the racehorse. At its best, would it be enough to make the sport morally acceptable is difficult to foresee. I do know that should racing be abolished, less thoroughbreds would exist, and this has always given me pause. So, for me, this is the dilemma, but I would opt to abolish the sport if the status quo remains.  

19 Aug 2012 2:02 PM
nu-fan

Thank you, Sceptre, for your reply.  Having independent vets routinely check these horses would be great but it may be difficult to implement if for no other reason than the logistics of it.  (Won't go into costs.)  I suspect that the horseracing industry is aware that there are increasing numbers of people who find horseracing to be a bit seedy and are concerned about the safety of the horses and jockeys; therefore, more are staying away from this sport.  But, requiring major changes, immediately, will be rebuffed by the horseracing and gambing community.  Taking "baby-steps", one at a time, may eventually get horseracing relatively safe. But, it will be the public who needs to keep needling for changes.  Wish that the nation's schools of equine veterinbary science would lead the wsy; they're the experts.  By the way, in regards to costs: If the costs for safety prohibit everyone from participating in this sport, so be it!  They need to get out.  If fewer horses are able to run, so be it!  Instead of tracks running 8-12 races on a day, run 4-5.  Costs should always come second to safety and welfare of its participants.  If that can't be done, then, perhaps, the racetracks in the U.S. need to be closed down until the horseracing industry gets their act together.  There is so much wrong with it.

19 Aug 2012 8:51 PM
pabred

I suggest all of you that have commented need to go to a stable on the backside in the mornings, and spend some time there before you make any more comments.  You can not make educated comments till you know all the information.  

20 Aug 2012 10:56 PM
sceptre

pabred:

Your comment appears to suggest that none of us have spent time on the backstretch. I've been there (with my horses in training), rather regularly, for fifty years. One can infer that you disagree with much that has been said here. So, let's hear it, and by the way, what's your experience?

21 Aug 2012 10:37 AM
lunar spook

PABRED- thanks for letting us know we are not worthy of stating opinions around someone as educated as you ! please forgive us your highness !

21 Aug 2012 5:16 PM
nu-fan

Pabred:  Your arrogance astounds me.  You see to think that only those individuals who are actively working the tracks have any room to comment.  Well, let me explain who I am. I'm the one who pays your salary.  I am the fan who goes to the track and supports cable TV by watching HRTV and TVG.  Without fans, there would not be any reason to have races since there won't be enough people in the stands (so the track will close eventually) and won't watch horseracing on TV (so, without enough viewership, those channels will not get enough advertisers to pay for airtime).  How many fans are there like me?  Probably more than you care to acknowledge! Want evidence?  Take a look at how many racetracks have closed.

22 Aug 2012 9:05 PM

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