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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


After years of fits and starts and having gone virtually unnoticed, some quiet progress is being made by the Thoroughbred racing industry.

My default position is twofold: Either new regulatory measures are a subliminal ruse serving to reinforce the status quo, or it represents progress. Only time will tell.

Nearly a decade has passed since racing’s leaders began trying to enact a sensible national approach to meaningful medication testing and regulation. Toward that end, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) might finally pass both Houses of Congress, becoming a regulatory process with teeth.

Not unexpectedly, the news of the bill’s expected passage was greeted with much skepticism and condemnation from horsemen’s groups, including National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association president and board chairman Leroy Gessmann in remarks attributed to him recently in the Northern Kentucky Tribune.

At its essence, Gessmann attacked the bill’s sponsor, the austere Jockey Club, charging them of using the politics of elite cronyism from well-heeled interests at the expense of racing’s little guy. As we have seen, however, little guys become big guys by getting by with a little help from their friends.

Gassmann’s argument is that the bill is close to becoming law via a “shaded” process and that constituencies within the industry know nothing about the bill.

So why should horsemen by any more educated than the average American, and why is it a matter of course when horsemen are found innocent behind closed doors while the strawman of barn contamination again shields the racing public from learning the truth.

Gessmann has concerns about a ‘private-sector’ governing body but that notion is disingenuous. HISA will create a hybrid panel–half government, half horsemen–with an independent chairman to break ties. On balance, it’s as good as anyone has a right to expect under the circumstances.

The true pharmaceutical culprit that turns mere mortals into 30-percent latter-day legends is clenbuterol, a synthetic med that mimics anabolic steroids by artificially enabling growth and muscle mass, not dissimilar to the androgenic effects produced by the male sex hormone testosterone.

Steroid use is not a bad thing in and of itself. It can be used therapeutically to treat hormonal imbalances that sometimes cause delayed puberty in humans or compensate for muscle loss due to insidious disease, e.g. cancer. But it has no unfettered place in a Thoroughbred’s routine training program.

For that reason, clenbuterol abuse rightfully has come under attack. Newly minted Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse, unafraid to voice his concern on matters damaging to the industry, had this to say in a recent Thoroughbred Daily News interview, an argument that counters Gassmann’s assessment:

 “I am very disappointed that we ran the recent Breeders’ Cup series at Keeneland with the same clenbuterol rules that have failed us in the past.

“In life and horse racing, there are not many things I am certain of, but one thing I am positive about is the need for the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act to be passed by the Senate. Because only when we have national uniformity of medication rules will inequities be solved.”

Industry movements are afoot, but just as Gessmann accuses The Jockey Club, industry foxes are still guarding their own medication henhouse which does not work well, as all know. But there’s reason to hope that maybe it can be different this time.

In Canada, lead time for prohibition of clenbuterol treatment has been lengthened to 28 days, a good start. In Maryland, veterinarians will need permission from state appointed equine medical directors to administer clenbuterol, accompanied by a diagnosis and prescription for treatment.

Because of private property constraints, however, Maryland cannot conduct out-of-competition testing without first getting permission from the horse’s connections, which defeats the purpose of random O-O-C testing.

Maryland has banned the raceday use of Lasix in graded stakes but the entire legislative process could take until spring to complete before going back to the Maryland Racing Commission for an enforcement signatory. Oy vey.

Standardbreds are included in this legislative proposal but that industry has objected to lengthened clenbuterol withdrawal times since they race on a weekly schedule, their leaders insisting that the new withdrawal times furthers already compromised efficacy.

New York-based veterinarians are also required to seek permission from the New York Gaming Commission after making their diagnosis and submitting a prescription for the level of dosage requested.

More recently Arkansas, of all states, has come up with a comprehensive list of new measures dealing with myriad issues in 2021. Withdrawal time for clenbuterol will move out to 60 days, its use confirmed by hair testing. Claims may be voided for horses that test positive for bronchodilator usage.

The maximum dosage for Lasix has been halved, and the use of softer safety whips, pre-approved by the stewards, will be mandatory. Further, no shockwave or radial pulse therapy will be permitted within 30 days. Trainer and veterinary records must be made available on demand.

Following Kentucky’s lead, none of the winners of graded stakes for three-year-olds will be awarded Derby or Oaks qualifying points if competing with raceday Lasix.

In sum, history has shown that enforcement without independent oversight cannot be trusted. But in the last few months it appears that the industry is finally getting it. With a little trepidation, it’s only fair to acknowledge that some progress is being made.  

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2 Responses

  1. John: As a retired attorney, we had a old joke that we all learned in Law School, to wit, When the facts are in your favor, “bang” the facts, when the law is in your favor, “bang” the law, but if neither are in your favor, “bang” the Table! After reading the OP/Ed in the Northern Kentucky Tribune, it seems to me that Mr. Gessmann knows that neither the facts, nor the law, are in his favor, and has defaulted to “banging” the table. I could not find any support for his position that the Legislative process involved in promoting HISA has been the result of some “Shady” dealings. HISA is the result of years of the old Barr/ Tonko proposed legislation being ignored by both Congress and the Horse Racing Industry. For Mr. Gessmann to complain that “horsemen” had no notice or knowledge of what HISA contains is completely disingenuous. They have known for years what the purpose and intent of Barr/ Tonko has been and chose to ignore it. In this regard, they mostly relied on Mitch McConnell’s close relationship with CDI to allay their fears. Now that CDI and Mitch had a change of heart, they turn on their old “friend” and accuse the Senator of being in cahoots with the Jockey Club. What utter nonsense!
    One other thing John. Gessmann tries to use the old canard that the Nation’s taxpayers will be footing the HISA bill. Of course, not a single word about the the actual group that will be paying for HISA enforcement, i.e., the Nation’s Horseplayers. Maybe someday, the National HBPA will realize that they should be currying favor with the Bettors, rather than treating them as yesterday’s refuse!

  2. Absolutely nothing to add, Fram, as you hit every note, and I do believe your assessment of the political ramifications regarding MM and Kentucky’s signature industry is spot on.

    And you are correct about one more thing, but I won’t be holding my breath with respect to the HBPA looking out for the player’s best interests. Sometimes it seems all of racing ignores the rank and file player, instead leaning on a perverted axiom.

    To paraphrase, allowing for this distortion, the motto should be “Build it and they will succumb”.

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