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.

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