Needed Commitment - By Frank Angst

The details outlined in the March 9 federal indictment of Jorge Navarro suggest a years-long scheme in which cheating trainers were well ahead of racing’s attempts—heavily reliant on post-race testing—to keep the game fair.

To Kentucky’s credit, the commonwealth will not stand pat. Lawmakers this month committed $1.5 million to a testing lab supporters believe will bring new levels of integrity. Another $500,000 allows the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to hire a safety steward and investigators to provide front-end protection for a sport where alleged cheaters have shown an ability to stay ahead of post-race testing.

With the federal indictment of Navarro—which includes top trainer Jason Servis—casting a shadow on the sport, industry and regulatory leaders as well as lawmakers in the Bluegrass quickly saw the potential impact on a signature industry if they failed to take swift, significant action.

Veterinarian Dr. Stuart Brown, who serves on the KHRC and chairs the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council, said because the commonwealth already is home to a top research lab at the University of Kentucky, committing support to a commercial testing lab at the school’s Agriculture College not only made sense but allows for unique symmetry.

“I can’t think of another instance where such an opportunity has existed for advancing this concept—philosophically this concept—of a super drug-testing lab,” Brown said. “Because when you talk about that, you talk about the ability to do cutting-edge research, to do benchmark research where you’re developing new tests, new methodology like you see behind the biological passport, and things like that. Then you’re able to apply that in a commercial laboratory that actually does work in the industry for surveillance and defending the integrity of competition.”

Brown also chairs the Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky, which in 2018 brought in internationally recognized Scott Stanley to conduct research focused on developing new anti-doping approaches and the establishment of an equine biological passport project. Stanley has taken on an additional role, overseeing a testing lab at UK, which will receive the state money and could be accredited by this fall.

“It’s one thing just to have the investment in a lab that’s out there working on stuff, but if you don’t have that going forward in parallel with a commercial laboratory that actually services the industry, then you lose the benefit of that super drug-testing concept because you want it to be applied science. You want to be doing research on stuff you actually implement into a program that protects the integrity of competition.”

Kentucky might be uniquely positioned to lead on integrity. Stanley noted that Nancy Cox, dean of UK’s College of Agriculture, has a goal of making the school a full-service program for the equine industry. The economic impact from breeding and racing in the state is understood by lawmakers, including prominent leaders such as Damon Thayer and House Speaker David Osborne.

“By the time we pool all these resources, we’ll have the greatest investment in cutting-edge technology and trained personnel to do analytics that will really advance our understanding and keep us a step ahead in terms of defending our interests in the industry and prevent people from taking an unfair advantage,” Brown said.

There are political motivations as well. Thayer opposes the federal plan of the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s taking over equine drug testing and medication rules from the states, and Osborne noted that a number of lawmakers also voiced their preference for Kentucky’s continuing to fill that role.

For the many states that have not made this type of investment and don’t have the support for the sport seen in Kentucky, USADA continues to be the better option going forward. But it’s good to see the commitment Kentucky has made to its signature industry on the issue of integrity.

“My hope for this whole venture is that it elevates a new standard for this area of integrity testing that can exist in no better place than here because we have the support and infrastructure of an industry,” Brown said. “We have the support of important racetrack partnerships, legislative advocates such as Sen. Thayer and Speaker Osborne, and we have the scientists that are aligned here through investments in things such as the Gluck Center. This investment could have tremendous returns for generations. I just can’t think of anywhere else to capitalize on the investment and maximize the return on it.”

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