Sunday, December 20, 2009
Racing's tarnished image
By Claire Novak Special to ESPN.com
CHICAGO -- We think of these things in the quiet months, when the rush of Breeders' Cup week is over and Derby fever has yet to descend. We ponder ways to change the sport, to improve its image. There is time for reflection upon the good, and once the good has been remembered, we turn to the bad.
Gozzip Girl tested positive for a tranquilizer this month.
In horse racing there's plenty of both to consider.
The final month of an incredible 2009 season got off to an inauspicious start on Dec. 2 with news from Kentucky; three runners trained by Kiaran McLaughlin had tested positive for traces of the prohibited bronchodilator ipratropium bromide and McLaughlin was to serve three concurrent 30-day suspensions. Things continued on a downward slide when trainer Tom Albertrani was handed a similar suspension for a medication violation by the same state just days later; his starter, Gozzip Girl, had tested positive for the tranquilizer acepromazine.
On the surface, headlines from reports on both subjects -- "McLaughlin Suspended for Kentucky Positives" and "Albertrani Stung by Positive Test" -- served only to enforce what three out of every 10 core racing fans already believe; that within the horse racing industry, shady practices still abound.
But is that the truth?
McLaughlin blamed his positives -- including one for Pin Oak Valley View Stakes division one winner Bluegrass Princes -- upon insufficient withdrawal time. His vet had recommended administering the therapeutic medication Atrovent no closer than 48 hours before a race, advice which McLaughlin followed, but somehow traces of the drug remained in the horses' systems. Albertrani said he did not know why there were levels of acepromazine in Gozzip Girl's system and told reporters his team never administered the drug to the filly, third-place finisher and morning-line favorite in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes at Keeneland. The horses were disqualified, stripped of their purse money, and placed last. Their trainers, first-time offenders in the state, remain on suspension until Dec. 30 and Jan. 9, respectively.
Both explanations come from horsemen with sterling reputations. In McLaughlin's case the positives were explainable; in Albertrani's, common sense dictates he would have no reason to administer such a drug to the morning-line favorite in a Grade I race. But regardless of details, the fact still remains -- to the uneducated public, both suspensions read as another black mark on the racing industry.
Tackling the issue of drug testing in relation to the Thoroughbred racing world is not for the faint of heart. From five industry experts will come five different answers, from five fans will come five differing opinions. A tangled web of rules, regulations and restrictions greets the inquisitive party, and as organizations such as the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) and the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) strive to preserve integrity and convince the public of their success in doing so, two glaring questions remain -- what exactly is going on in this area of the horse racing industry -- and will we ever shed our tarnished image?
McLaughlin said he wants racing fans to know one thing: He would never compromise his own integrity, or the integrity of the sport he loves, by using prohibited substances. His case serves to further the call for a change in hard-line rulings on the "grey areas" of positive findings -- and emphasizes the need for an understanding of the difference between therapeutic medications for the good of the horse and performance-enhancing or symptom-masking drugs.
"There's a dichotomy between prohibited substances and therapeutic medications and many of the regulators, let alone fans, have lumped them all together," said Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Protective and Benevolent Association (KYHBPA).
This is something the fans consider.
"If the only goal of testing is to detect those who are looking for a way to cheat, then this sort of scrutiny is trying to do the right thing. But overwhelmingly that is NOT the most pervasive issue," wrote "carbonite," a member of the Thoroughbred Champions Internet forum, on Dec. 8. "Most trainers are relying on vet advice for the best way to treat their horses in order to a) protect the horse's welfare and b) enable him to compete as close as possible to his optimum ability within the rules. Neither of those is a bad goal. In fact, it should be the outcome that we all want: a competition where every athlete is able to perform to their optimum ability and where risk of injury is minimal. The real difficulty in testing is ... (distinguishing) ... a permissible pursuit of that objective from what is an impermissible or excessive pursuit of that objective, and (distinguishing) ... both from an outright attempt to affect the outcome of a race either through performance enhancement or performance degradation." So do the leading trainers try to beat the system? We're talking about the McLaughlins and Steve Asmussens and Todd Pletchers of the world, the men with loaded barns and champion horses and powerful owners backing them up. According to many, the answer is a resounding no.
"Most horsemen will agree that they are opposed to any kind of prohibited illegal substance, they don't want to be a part of that," Maline said. "There's no way a McLaughlin or an Asmussen or any of those guys who have so much at stake are going to take the shot of getting their careers ruined, that black mark on their record, by giving the horse a substance they know the labs are going to catch. It's ludicrous to even think something like that."
Jack Wolf, owner of Starlight Stables, said he stuck by trainer Todd Pletcher through a mepivacaine positive in 2004 for that very reason -- and because his trust in Pletcher had been built through years of above-board interaction.
"Todd is one of the most truthful, honorable people I've had dealings with," Wolf said. "If he tells me he had no clue how it happened, I believe him."
"Our business is so strict with testing, none of the top 20 trainers in America would be stupid enough to try that," said McLaughlin. "Mistakes happen. Whether it's giving clenbuterol too close to a race or running a horse in one state that allows a different percentage than another state, or racing in one jurisdiction that allows a medication two days out from a race while another only allows it four days out ... those mistakes happen. And someone might say, 'Oh, Steve Asmussen had 28 positives (in his career),' but I have to say, well, I think that's not so bad, running 2,800 horses per year."
Racing authorities, however, have little patience for trainers who blame the magnitude of their operations for their mistakes. The widely accepted "trainer responsibility rule," worded a little differently from state to state, of course, provides such as New York's 4043.4: "A trainer shall be responsible at all times for the condition of all horses trained by him. The trainer shall be held responsible for any positive test unless he can show by substantial evidence that neither he nor any employee nor agent was responsible for the administration of the drug or other restricted substance. Every trainer must guard each horse trained by him in such manner and for such period of time prior to racing the horse so as to prevent any person, whether or not employed by or connected with the owner or trainer, from administering any drug or other restricted substance to such horse ..."
"I'm not really sympathetic to some of these trainers that have hundreds of horses in training across the country and say, 'I can't ensure the condition of this horse if I'm not there,'" said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB). "I know it's not necessarily a popular opinion, but cut down on your stable size so you can."
Arthur admits that in more than three years as the CHRB's equine medical director, he rarely comes across drug positives that are a result of someone trying to play the system.
"Usually positives are related to management issues," he said. "Some people are negligent and some are willing to dance close to the fire and have a tendency to whine a little bit when they get burned. It's a preconceived notion that people are doing dastardly things to horses. In terms of actually trying to go out there and enhance the horse's performance to cash a bet, that doesn't happen very often -- particularly in the states that have stricter medication rules."
In the NFL, a field goal is three points in New York, Texas and California -- everywhere. In baseball, it's three strikes and you're out. But in horse racing, you have .16 nanograms of a prohibited substance (a level not even considered a positive in several states) and in Kentucky you get hit with a 30-day suspension.
"There needs to be uniformity from coast to coast," McLaughlin said.
It's a change the industry has been slow to make due to politics and the state-by-state structure of racing commissions and governing organizations. Even though the RMTC has established a model uniform national medication policy, not all 38 states that regulate pari-mutual wagering have chosen to follow the guideline.
"Each state is most concerned with what is happening in its own jurisdiction and that makes achieving uniform rules for anything in racing difficult," Dr. Scot Waterman, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, remarked in a statement on the organization's Web site.
Consider, for instance, the irregularities between permissible levels of total carbon dioxide, or TCO2 (which can rise when a horse is given an illegal performance-enhancing cocktail containing alkalizing agents), in the states of California and New York. The level of TCO2 elevation allowed by the California Horse Racing Board is 37 millimoles per liter, while permissible TCO2 levels in New York are a full two millimoles (39 mm/L) higher for horses on Lasix. So a complaint leveled by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) against trainer Jeff Mullins, whose starter Pathbreaking raced on Lasix in 2008 and was found to have elevated TCO2 levels of 37.9 mm/L, would have been a nonissue in New York.
"It's as big a problem as anything -- it's one thing if someone is based in a state and doesn't move, but the problem is when you go from state to state," Arthur said. "What you can do in one state you can't necessarily do in another. I think people get familiar with how their laboratory deals with different drugs in their individual state but when they go from one state to another it's quite variable, and how they prosecute is quite variable. It ends up being a big mess. We're closer to uniform medication rules than we ever have but we still have a very long way to go."
"So many of these states have their little fiefdoms and these situations where they think what they're doing is the best scenario and what they're saying is the only way to go," Maline said. "They have their own ideas on how things need to be done. I guess we're closer now to uniformity than we've been in the past, but sometimes it seems like it's more or less a pipe dream."
Drug testing isn't the only area that lacks uniformity from state to state. Lax security methods and unsterilized environments pose problems for horsemen and regulators alike, although organizations like the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Integrity and Safety Alliance are steadily improving conditions nationwide.
Defense attorney Karen Murphy first tangled with the mind-boggling irregularities involving security and cross-contamination of drug samples on her way to a hearing for a client at Delaware Park. Walking past the receiving barn, a facility to which horses are sent prior to their respective races, the attorney saw a runner being walked in the stable yard. It was 8:00 a.m., far too early for any horse to be entering the receiving barn in preparation for race day.
She looked for a guard; there was no guard. She went into the barn. There, a man and woman were standing near a stall.
"I asked them what they were doing and the man said, 'We just shipped in today and breezed horse, we'll be taking off again,'" Murphy related. "The horse had just been in the stall and urinated, and there was no record of who that horse was, who these people were. I said, 'Isn't there some kind of check-in procedure that you follow?' And they said, 'No, we just come in, use the facilities, and leave.'"
If there was no record of which horse used the stall, there was no way of tracing medications that could have been in the horse's system. And if there was no way of tracing medications that could have been in the horse's system, there was no way of making sure another horse, waiting in that stall before a given race, did not ingest trace amounts of drugs contained in his predecessor's urine.
In the Blood-Horse Magazine's July 4 coverage of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association's Medication Committee meeting, news editor Tom LaMarra mentioned Dr. Steven Barker, chemist for the Louisiana State Racing Commission, and his insistence that the industry address environmental contamination.
"Barker said he believes 80percent of drug 'positives' would be eliminated if the racing industry did away with 'zero tolerance' in testing," wrote LaMarra. "[He] said the racing industry is creating negative perception by pursuing zero-tolerance policies. He said sources of contamination are well-known; they can be environmental, veterinary or pharmaceutical, bacterial, metabolic, and found in laboratories.
"'Despite all of this, the industry allows jurisdictions to ignore possible sources of contamination,' Barker said. 'It is senseless, unscientific, and antiquated. This industry does the terrible job of shooting itself in the foot. (Zero tolerance) is meaningless, really, but to the public, press, and regulators, it's the gold standard.'"
Still, Arthur believes the issue of cross-contamination is grossly overstated. He said he finds it interesting that drugs with severe penalties attached -- clenbuterol, for instance -- have disappeared almost completely from the scene in California since those penalties were enacted.
"We've had one clenbuterol positive in our Thoroughbreds in the last 25 months, and that's Northern California and Southern California combined," he said. "And the reason for that is, the consequences are rather severe."
Maline, however, said it is unfortunate that racing commissions take the "guilty until proven innocent" approach.
"They get all charged up thinking they've caught all these cheaters and more often than not it's a mistake on someone's part, not someone trying to get past the system," he said. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not naive enough to think that it occasionally doesn't happen, but the vast majority of overages are therapeutic medications that have been given for the good of the horse."
So do maverick racing commissions wield power without the best interests of the racing industry in mind? The attorneys who represent various trainers across the country believe so. Murphy, who counts Pletcher, Asmussen and Mullins among her clientele, said she can list case after case of administrative proceedings and hearings that disregarded indemnifying evidence because "a positive is a positive." And attorney Alan Pincus, in an Oct. 11 article for the Paulick Report, claimed that most authorities are hasty to make an example of horsemen with little regard for science and the specifics of a situation.
"In Pennsylvania, the regulations state that no foreign substance shall appear in a post-race test. This is what they call zero tolerance and is true for all but a few drugs which do have tolerance levels," Pincus wrote. "At the time the regulations were written the testing was at the nanogram (one particle per billion) level. Any horse found to have an illegal substance most likely had a performance affecting level in its system. Also, the chances were high that the trainer was responsible. Now, they have testing to the picogram level (one particle per trillion). There are 1,000 picograms in a nanogram, so you can conclude that testing today is 1,000 times more sensitive than when the regulations were written.
"If you look at the Class 1 drug positives in Pennsylvania over the last 10 years (notably aminorex and cocaine), you'll find that over 90% were the result of environmental contamination and the trainers were totally innocent. The commission, which always presumes the trainers were negligent or cheaters, has no concern about the grief trainers go through when they receive a positive test. This is true even when the trainers are eventually cleared. One thing you can count on is the fact that the Commission will never say they were wrong."
Of course, that's the defense's opinion.
Viewed from the other side, it's a different matter. Racing commissioners may know the system isn't perfect -- but it's still their job to enforce it. And while the guilty until proven innocent attitude might not be the most sympathetic, playing hardball works to pretty much scare the living daylights out of individuals who otherwise might dance a little closer to the fire.
"Our job is to protect the public and protect the integrity of the sport," said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board. "We also have to protect the horse and the jockey, and some of these issues are very nebulous, more complex than a lot of people realize."
Murphy, however, believes the system became contorted when racing commissioners began to rely strongly on uninformed administrative judges and attorney generals, taking the hearing process outside the realm of the racing industry.
"It became twisted by overreaching racing commissions and further overreaching from attorney generals getting involved and today you have an over-litigated, over-advocated process run by people who in most situations don't know the industry well," she said. "Now we've perverted the system so that the end result is not to know what the truth is, it's just to 'get a cheater caught.' Well, there are explanations in life for why certain things happen. Every positive doesn't mean something nefarious that went on."
But what of the trainers like McLaughlin, who find their reputations and careers on the line? The New York-based trainer lost only one client -- Frank Justice of Dell Ridge Farm, the owner of Bluegrass Princess. "I understand. His filly got disqualified from a Grade III," McLaughlin said.
This month will be a personal wash for the trainer; in accordance with the terms of his suspension, he removed himself from the payroll and will not set foot on a racetrack until the new year. In spite of the fact his horses are still running under his assistant's name, he is not allowed to receive any purse monies. But daily expenses must still be paid, and December is one of the quieter months of the year for big-time trainers, the downtime before Gulfstream Park opens in January. There are still Christmas bonuses to deliver, and premiums to maintain for workers' compensation.
Granted, McLaughlin runs one of the nation's premiere stables, and the break will do nothing to put him out of business. But the time away from the track and the embarrassment of running afoul of the system is upsetting enough, the trainer said.
"I love what I do and it's punishment enough that I don't get to go to the track," he remarked. "Going forward, my staff and I will be on super-strict probation, because we can't afford another mistake of any kind. It's going to be one of those things where if they tell you not to give something 10 days before a race, you go 12 days."
McLaughlin is fortunate, a trainer with a sterling reputation that will withstand the effects of the costly mistake. Others are not so lucky. Repeat offenders such as Mullins, Steve Asmussen and Rick Dutrow have forever lost the trust of the average racing fan.
And what is the conclusion in all of this? That racing authorities must consider the applications of science in the review of positive calls and the determination of ensuing consequences. That states must adopt universal medication rules and band together, egos aside, to make it work. That trainers must support the media in efforts to educate fans about the practices and policies surrounding the industry's top horses. That there is much work to be done.
"What it calls for as much as anything is reasonable people and common sense to look at first of all, does the drug have any effect on performance, and then what are the variables or the mitigating circumstances," Maline said. "This issue is so multi-faceted and has so many variables that if you don't take everything into consideration, you can really make a serious error."
For now, however, those charged with policing the sport will err on the side of overregulation, and it is up to the horsemen to keep state-to-state changes and varying withdrawal times in mind.
"Nobody tries to go out and 'get' somebody," Arthur said. "Finding drug positives is miserable. They're miserable to deal with, they're not fun, there is no good outcome for horse racing in a drug positive -- but I will tell you if we didn't stand tough, we would have no control over the sport. It's in the state's interest and the sport's interest to do the best we can."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the (Albany, N.Y.) Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.