The biggest stories are usually the saddest, the most embarrassing: the Fix Six scandal, the animal cruelty of Ernie Paragallo, the Barbaro and Eight Belles tragedies, the sudden equine death syndrome mystery and, most recently, the PETA/Asmussen tapes.
In the case of the latter, outside events unwittingly took some of the heat off racing created by the undercover sting operation. The NCAA Tournament was in high gear when the story broke. No foul, no harm.
But now, with Derby Week upon us, the sports world is mired in a new obsession; the hideous, hurtful Donald Sterling tapes. However, don’t expect the fallout from the “scandalous” PETA video to disappear anytime soon.
It’s Monday and the Asmussen story already has been dredged up by the New York Daily News, Newsday and a Lexington, KY-based business website.
But whatever coverage this story gets the rest of this week, it will pale in comparison to what will be learned by the general public during the highly rated network broadcast of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.
If Bob Costas hosts the event again this year, the medication issue certainly will be covered for the weighty matter that it is. Or the topic might be explored by new hire Josh Elliott, former “Good Morning America” news anchor with an ESPN pedigree.
NBC Sports indicated in a press release when Elliott was hired that horse racing would be one of his assignments.
Given anticipated concerns from the industry, whatever the network decides to do, or not do, it would be good if some leading racing organization made a meaningful announcement this week. That message can come in one of two forms:
In what horsemen’s groups hope will be a preemptive strike is an announcement that an accord has been reached among all major racing jurisdictions to adopt the National Uniform Medication Program, based on the Association of Racing Commissioners International’s model rules.
The RCI program would be a very good start, leveling the playing field on the use of legal medication by lengthening withdrawal times and standardizing and strengthening punishment for medication violations, permitted or otherwise.
Gulfstream Park, following the lead of New Meadowlands, has begun out-of-competition [random] testing. Stronach Group owner Frank Stronach has called for establishment of on-track pharmacies that would buy and dispense all medications to all horses on racetrack grounds.
Based on the Hong Kong model, newly constructed “house rules” would prohibit anyone from having any medication in their possession except those that have been properly prescribed in a recognized therapeutic treatment program.
Critics, of course, pointed to the many logistical issues, such as treatment administered at “off track” training centers, or the fact that Hong Kong is a single circuit with a horse population that routinely is double the amount of races run there in any one year.
The Stronach Group plan calls for hiring an equine health and safety director to devise how the policies will be implemented and decreed in consultation with a committee consisting of owners, trainers and veterinarians.
Jockey Club chairman Ogden Mills Phipps proposed that veterinary records of every horse entered in this year’s Triple Crown races be made immediately available. The New York State Gaming Commission does this for the Belmont Stakes, but it only covers a three-day period. Phipps thinks the time frame be lengthened to two weeks.
A large number of prominent owners and trainers have voluntarily pledged to make veterinary records available to the public for all North American graded stakes.
This is admirable, but it should be considered only a good place to start, especially since the public bets most of its money on high quality racing programs.
Among the trainers to volunteer were Roger Attfield, Mark Casse, Christophe Clement, Neil Drysdale, D. Wayne Lukas, Richard Mandella, Michael Matz, Shug McGaughey, Kenny McPeek, Bill Mott, John Shirreffs, Al Stall Jr., Dallas Stewart and Ian Wilkes. There were a similar amount of prominent owners and breeders.
To their credit, many highly visible owners and breeders have expressed skepticism that the industry will make the necessary concerted effort to level the playing field.
Further, these individuals are aware that if currently dormant public perception becomes active, possibly spurred on by the next high profile accident or scandal, powerful conservative extremists could demand that government shut the whole thing down.
If the adoption of the RCI model rules becomes universal, all trainers who use race-day Lasix on 90 percent of their horses will have gained a substantial victory as practitioners but the sport will lose again.
Many of the sport’s most influential and potent owners and breeders don’t trust that the model rules will be enough, that permissive medication policies have only helped to weaken the breed to the detriment of all.
And so they formed a grassroots organization, WHOA, the Water, Hay and Oats Alliance, hoping to rid the sport of race-day medication.
These are not idealists having no financial dogs in this fight but rather are practitioners who take a long-range view, keenly aware that status quo policies have caused a schism in the industry not dissimilar to what’s happening in American life on a daily basis.
“For most all of my career in the third generation, we as an industry have allowed both intentional and unintentional consequences of this use of permissive medication to overwhelm this great sport,” said Staci Hancock of Stone Farm.
“…Far worse, our lack of a coherent uniform policy has given much of our public the impression that we are only interested in exploiting these magnificent creatures,” stated Don M Robinson, owner/breeder of Winter Quarter Farm.
“Horse racing is now perceived as a "win at all cost" sport. Like any other sport, we need uniform rules and transparency. We've waited far too long for our sport to make necessary rules and police itself.
“We can no longer be absentee owners of our thoroughbreds. It's time to clean up our act so our sport can again earn the respect of its fans. They deserve better... and so do our horses,” said Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson in support of WHOA.
From owner/breeder Joseph W. Sutton came this: “Those charged with administering and regulating horse racing have turned their heads and done nothing. Federal legislation is required.
“Race day medications should be banned; new anti-doping rules should be strongly enforced, and those who cheat should be severely punished. If not, our sport is doomed.”
Although federal legislation endorsed by WHOA may be the only real answer, it need not be the only one.
The recently written Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act would give the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency power to lead. USADA is the independent agency that busted cyclist Lance Armstrong and has a mission “to preserve the value and integrity of athletic competition through just initiatives that prevent, deter and detect violations of true sport.”
The USADA would create testing and stiffer penalty programs for horse racing nationally, replacing the helter-skelter state-by-state mechanism currently in place.
Unlike previous bills which were not enacted, the new bill would enable USADA to act as an antidoping body without amending the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978, increasing hopes that it could become law.
To offer interstate off-track wagers, the host track and the off-track system accepting the wager must gain the consent of USADA in addition to previously stated conditions as required by the 1978 law.
The industry then would be dealing with the agency directly and not with independent members of Congress, which has to be a plus. However, racing must fund the costs of regulation and enforcement.
“Money can’t be an excuse because there is [money] already out there supporting a flawed, loophole-ridden system,” said Travis Tygart, CEO of USADA.
“Unlike any other sport, real money is at stake for the public, and real people are impacted. The goal would be to actually return the sport to the beauty we all know is there, and ensure that the consumer, or betting public, or just those watching on television, would know that it was a level playing field.
"The USADA is not here to say it must be federal legislation; we are here to say there is a model that can help, and be done much better than it is being done."
"There are really two questions,” concluded Tygart: “How good or not good is the [new] policy? And once you have uniform policies, then the question is whether the implementation of those policies is uniform or not."
Said Phipps, who’s Jockey Club registers all Thoroughbreds: “We fully support, and have shown, that the independent model is the only truly effective way to regulate a sport.”
So, how badly does racing really want to clean up its act? This is about more than Steve Asmussen; it is about the conduct of every horseman going forward. They deserve to have rules that are clear and fair, uniform standards wherever they race.
But horses have rights, too, to compete naturally, and may the best horse win. For those who fund racing itself, the horseplayers, they have a right to expect that what they bet on is what they get.