Rebels and Reformers - By Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the October 12, 2013, 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 U.S. horse racing industry is yet again waving a big flag emblazoned with: “We cannot regulate ourselves.”

On the verge of significant progress toward uniform medication rules and a stronger penalty system, the rug keeps getting pulled out from underneath. The recent blind side came from the U.S. Trotting Association, which announced an immediate exit from the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium over proposed withdrawal times for clenbuterol and corticosteroids.

“In effect, the proposals took the use of those therapeutics away from Standardbred horsemen while not at all impacting the ability of Thoroughbred horsemen to employ the medications,” stated USTA president Phil Langley in a Sept. 27 letter to the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

What made the announcement so surprising is the USTA has made a significant contribution of time and money toward the RMTC, having been a member for 10 years and contributed more than $1 million. During the past decade the USTA has been involved in all the scientific reviews and debates that have shaped the proposed national model rules. According to RCI president Ed Martin, the RMTC includes regulatory advisers, as well, who are actively involved in the monitoring and enforcement of rules for both Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing. Representatives of the American Association of Equine Practitioners have been engaged in the process, too.

“The USTA objected to the RMTC recommendations for the use of clenbuterol and corticosteroids,” said Alex Waldrop, RMTC chairman and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, “but note that there are alternatives to treat a Standardbred horse post-race that will better accommodate the Standardbred business model without creating a back door to steroidal-type effects.”

Clenbuterol is used primarily to open up constricted air passages in the lungs, but it also is considered an anabolic steroid substitute.

Waldrop said the USTA has also been advocating a “liberalization” of the policies on corticosteroid use.

“The uniform rules recommended by the RMTC and adopted by the RCI are the most effective way to ensure the safety of all racehorses and the integrity of the sport, regardless of breed,” Waldrop said.

What is surprising is how matter-of-fact the reliance on regular corticosteroid and clenbuterol treatments seems to be for the Standardbred industry. Clenbuterol is apparently administered therapeutically and with regularity a day or two after a race to horses that race every week or two.

Langley said the therapeutic medication needs of Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds should be treated separately because of differences between the breeds themselves and how they are raced.

“Our horses race on a weekly basis, often for many years,” Langley explained in the USTA’s resignation letter to the RCI. “Catastrophic breakdowns in our sport are exceedingly rare. Sadly, this is not the case in the Thoroughbred industry. The USTA is very much in favor of uniform rules, but by breed.”

He added that the USTA also favors out-of-competition testing, elimination of blood doping and use of erythropoietin (EPO), ways to identify improper use of shock-wave therapy, and the development of tests for in-use but as yet unidentified drugs.

Unfortunately, the uniform application of these rules won’t include the Standardbred industry because it’s now out of the RMTC.

The Thoroughbred industry does seem resolute in adopting the uniform national model rules on medication and drug-testing. More than 50 racetracks and industry organizations have co-signed a letter urging state regulators to act immediately in adopting the rules (see The Wire, page 14).

This will get complicated in states such as Delaware and Pennsylvania, which have separate racing commissions for Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing.

What is frustrating is that despite all the effort toward uniformity, the split between the Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds could be seen one way by congressional leaders itching to create federal oversight for the horse racing industry: that the industry cannot effectively police itself.

Perhaps the strong call-to-action among Thoroughbred racetracks and organizations will push state regulators to move forward with across-the-board medication rules and penalties. If not—and the end result is a continuation of fractured rules—then maybe Congress is right.


Leave a Comment:

John from Baltimore

If the horses are so unsound or the trainers so incompetent that they need all these drugs, maybe racing should just get rid of them all and let a regulatory veterinarian give each horse a shot of cocaine before each race.  I think that fits with the racing mentality.


Congress and the animal rights groups could just say that horses aren't fit to race anymore without drugs and just end horse racing.


Racing could get its act together and elimate all drugs and deliver a product the public wants to buy instead relying on slot money.

08 Oct 2013 6:05 PM

I'm a fan of both Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing, so I am saddened by the split. I naively thought that Standardbreds did not have the drug issues that race horses do because they were trotting not running. I'd like to see drugs taken away from all racing, and if the two industries can't regulate themselves, then Federal oversight is better than what we have now.

09 Oct 2013 12:01 PM
John from Baltimore

The Kentucky Racing Commission is insulting betters who wage thier hard eaned money on Kentucky races by giving Gorder a 20 day susspension and a $500 fine.  Why don't they reimbure the betters who lost thier money on this fixed race, either intentionally or unintentionally.  If Gorder was sued by the betters who lost and he had to reimbuse the whole betting pool.  Bet he would never have another positive.  

09 Oct 2013 8:25 PM

JOHN from Baltimore, has no idea the whole difference between a thoroughbred and a standardbred.  So until you understand that, go and get educated before you speak.  Start with cold blooded and warm blooded horses.  They function totally differently.  If you cooled out a thoroughbred like you do a standardbred, the t bred would tie up.  Do we really need the federal government watching this.  They can not even agree on the simple things in life.  No jurisdiction is perfect, but the current rules and regs do just fine.  If you do not agree.  Find a trainer, and spend some time on the backside in the mornings.  Follow a vet around.  Then make an educated decision.  Remember, the press makes everything 100xs worse than it is.  Bad news sells.  Look at the National statistics and see, very few people show positive.

14 Oct 2013 4:40 PM

I see that once more the negative is being emphasized. Federal oversight is rarely the answer for any problem. To believe that uniform rules regarding medication or stronger penalties will correct the problem is the height of naiveté. Drugs are an issue in any sport even those that have a single governing body

15 Oct 2013 11:53 AM

Hankkon, are you against efforts to create uniform rules and stronger penalties for drug violations? Or, are you saying there will still be cheaters even if these are in place.

15 Oct 2013 4:30 PM

Mr. Mitchell, I am certainly not opposed to those efforts and yes I am saying that there will always be those who attempt to circumvent the rules no matter how strong the penalties or strict the enforcement. The real problem is that in any argument/discussion where people have strong opinions they will almost always overstate their case. I am confident that this great game will overcome these issues and continue to move forward despite all the negativity.

15 Oct 2013 5:38 PM

Well, we are both in agreement that human nature is what it is and in competition there will always be people looking for an edge. Thoroughbred racing, in that regard, is no different than the Olympics.

That being said, it doesn't mean you stop pursuing efforts to protect the integrity of the game. In racing's case, for the health of the horses (many being raced on medication cocktails) and for the bettors, who can easily abandon racing and go play poker.

Is this negative? I have had people tell me if everyone in racing would simply stop talking about medication, all our public relations problems would go away. On the other hand, many people welcome the open discussion of uniform medication policy and the implementation of tougher penalties as finally addressing a long-buried problem. I believe these efforts at uniformity and transparency are progress.

17 Oct 2013 8:21 AM

I have been on this Planet long enough to realize that my opinion is of no consequence, but there are times when I engage in the futility of expressing it anyway. To be honest what really prompted my words was not your article Mr. Mitchell but the featured letter submitted by Flora Reekskin in the Comments section of the Oct 12th issue of Blood-Horse. Her words display both the naiveté and negativity I refer to. she is also one of those who overstate their case to make a point. That letter is not an example of "open discussion" but merely pure negativity. Her vision of foreign racing as being drug free is laughable in my opinion. She is of course entitled to that opinion but it is of no value in placing it in such a prominent position in a national publication.

 The discussion regarding medication of course must and will continue but it is best left in the hands of those who posses both the information and expertise to take the proper action for the good of the game.  

17 Oct 2013 11:53 AM


Your opinion is always welcome here. Regarding drug use in Europe, the hay, oats, and water ideal presented as European race has certainly taken a beating this year. Steroid positives in Britain and now John Hughes, brother of well-known racehorse trainer Pat Hughes, pleading guilty last week to five counts of possessing banned drugs--including six kilograms of the anabolic steroid nitrotain. The Irish Turf Club said there is no other evidence of widespread steroid use but six kilograms is a lot of steroid. It was going somewhere and probably not into cattle.

18 Oct 2013 4:20 PM

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