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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


By Barry Irwin, CEO Team Valor — It was not by happenstance that in a 2004 Op/Ed I wrote in The Blood-Horse and eight years later the Water Hay Oats Alliance in its mission statement both singled out the United States Anti-Doping Agency as the one entity that could rein in the rampant use of drugs both legal and illegal in horse racing.

Through several iterations of proposed congressional legislations in different political administrations, WHOA forged ahead, convincing The Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association, Breeders’ Cup and other leading organizations to join its efforts. But WHOA never lost sight of its goal as stated in its original mission statement: USADA needed to be named by congress to oversee drugs in racing.

When Mitch McConnell finally saw the light and agreed to help his state’s signature industry by embracing the idea of the federal legislation, he joined the effort for a final push that resulted in the idea of naming an entity, named the Authority, to deal with the Federal Trade Commission in setting up drug controls. The idea from the very get-to and through the rewritten federal law was to bring USADA on board to do their thing.

But between passing the legislation, seating board and committee members and drafting rules for drugs and safety, the Authority lost sight of its mandate and role in the process. Things that plague most political actions and serve as a stark reminder of the corruption to which many humans are capable of brought forth conflicts of interest and the weightiness of power.

The Authority shockingly announced during the holidays that it had been unable to come to a meeting of the minds with Travis Tygart, the head of USADA. The newly formed group revealed that it was moving ahead to find an alternative overseer of drugs in racing. 

Conflicts of interest? Abuse of power? Money up for grabs? Really? Yep. Really.

I will save you all from having to read the rest of this and get right to the point: USADA is the only group with the brand, gravitas, respect and tools to save the sport of Thoroughbred racing. Yes, there are other groups that could address testing, investigations and education, but in total none of them has what USADA brings to the table. 

Jeff Novitzky, a storied federal investigator who graduated from breaking open the 2002 BALCO scandal and currently is in charge of athlete performance for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is a board member of the Authority. He is potentially an important player in determining who gets the nod to oversee drugs in racing, as he actually has experience in hiring USADA to work on behalf of the UFC.

As explained by Novitzky, there are ultimately three tasks that need to be addressed by any anti-doping organization, namely testing, investigation and education. Interestingly, he said that education is perhaps the most important, as it involves an authority figure such as Travis Tygart being able to educate athletes as to how sophisticated and thorough USADA can be in its job.

Novitzky says that this aspect of the triple-pronged approach has formed an effective deterrent to cheating by his athletes. Novitzky said that it is possible to find outfits that could do testing and investigation, but very challenging to find a group that could educate the participants like USADA. That is a difference maker for him.

The reason that WHOA and I have pushed so hard for USADA is that a totally independent group is essential in allowing the game to function and give fans and competitors alike the confidence that the sport is on the level.

Here is why an independent group is needed. In a game dominated by super-wealthy, powerfully-connected participants that operate their enterprises on a win-at-all-costs ethos, only an independent body is able to withstand the onslaught of a corrupt individual to assist them in breaking the rules.

In today’s environment, within the confines of racing (and not including the Federal Bureau of Investigation), powerful individuals who get caught breaking the rules always seem to find a get out of jail free card. 

The reason so many horsemen and owners seem to be against USADA’s involvement in racing is that their reputation has preceded them. They are incorruptible and this scares the crap out of them.

However, with USADA now set to be totally bypassed in favor of some other organizations that have been mentioned, independence will be thrown right out the window and all of our efforts will have been for naught, because the bad guys will have won again and nothing will have changed. Right now forces that want the appearance of change, but behind closed doors actually embrace the status quo, are calling the shots.

Forces working against USADA include those with conflicts of interest. Among them are Authority members that have existing affiliations to other anti-doping doping agencies, rival testing labs lined up for a big payday and individuals pulling any strings they can find to keep USADA from becoming the top cop on the block.

There is a lot of money involved and more than one testing lab or doping agency that would like to get their piece of the pie. Cronyism, regional muscle flexing and a good old-fashioned money grab characterizes the battlefield today.

It says here that the Authority has lost sight of its role in the process and that a combination of egos fueled with new-found power, members swayed by passionate enemies of USADA and lots of money up for grabs has corrupted what should have been a simple task. And for all appearances it looks very much like those empowered to guard the palace gates want to ascend to the throne.

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2 Responses

  1. The final paragraph contains the most enlightening commentary on the subject I’ve read since the “impasse” was announced, but is Mr. Irwin merely speculating, or does he actually know who the obstructionists are?

    Reform will be a long time coming if horsemen are as reluctant to expose corruption as they are to expose cheating; especially the journalists among them.

    1. I,
      Mr. Irwin has been involved in this process since well before the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance was officially formed. He is very well versed on this subject.

      I’m sure he knows the names of the players are and I’m sure he will try to affect change in the best manner available to him. I have known him for over three decades and never have had reason to doubt his veracity.

      There are no innocents in this game, myself included, but some of our are trying–and will continue to try–to make positive change…

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