Horse Racing and Baseball: What Can The Sport of Kings Learn From America’s Pastime?

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Bill Shanklin of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!


Major League Baseball (MLB) and U. S. horse racing both have a drug and image problem. This week, the all-time home-run king Barry Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice in a federal probe of steroid use and last week the exceptional pure-hitter Manny Ramirez abruptly retired rather than accept a 100-game suspension for purportedly testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug for a second time. Meanwhile, back in Kentucky, Richard Dutrow Jr. had his license application denied by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission for numerous medication violations and New York may also revoke his license. Just three years ago, Mr. Dutrow trained the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

At racetracks across the United States, phenybutazone and furosemide are routinely legally administered to the vast majority of the entries in every race, including the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup, and other graded stakes. Never mind the administration of illegal drugs that don’t get detected or do get detected and the offending trainer is then usually punished with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. Or, he or she may simply move on to another state jurisdiction with impunity.

Despite MLB’s widely publicized issues with drug abuse, the sport overall is still doing well at the ticket counter and in selling the product to the television networks. It seems that there may be truth, in this case, to the adage that “crime pays.” Fans don’t seem to be punishing MLB for the transgressions of many of its icons. One reason may be that MLB has instituted a very well-spelled-out policy with respect to substance abuse and enforces it. Players get a 50-game suspension for the initial violation, a 100-game suspension for the second, and a lifetime ban for the third. No one has yet received the lifetime ban.

If U. S. racing had a comparable policy, a number of trainers would have had to find other occupations countless violations ago.

The situation in horse racing pertaining to substance abuse is more damaging than it is in MLB. The majority of fans who attend MLB and/or watch on television are not betting on the games, whereas in horse racing that is not the case, at least for people actually at a racetrack or simulcasting facility. Pari-mutuel wagering has plummeted in recent years. One cause may be that bettors have left for plays they see as being more honest.

Moreover, imagine how members of the public react when they read and hear that, for instance, cobra venom was found at the Keeneland barn of the internationally known racehorse trainer Patrick Biancone. The man or woman on the street sees or learns of a breakdown during the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness and, rightly or wrongly, concludes, “Not surprising, these innocent animals are drugged.”

Offering lame excuses for why something substantive cannot be done about outlaw trainers and permissive drug policies will no longer work to sweep these problems under the rug. The action by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission in denying Richard Dutrow Jr. a license is the right measure. Bravo.

U. S. racing has to get the drugs and thugs out of this wonderful and elegant sport and do it pronto. The alternative is the continued alienation of the betting public and the general public. That is a sure recipe for disaster. The precipice for racing may not be around the corner but it could be down the street.

Don’t wait on the Racing Commissioners International to finalize its commendable comprehensive raceday medication policy. Move now with tough measures that require a stiffer spine than the industry has shown in the past.

For starters, beginning in 2012, the racing authorities in Kentucky, Maryland, and New York should agree to prohibit raceday medication of any kind for the Triple Crown races. The Breeders’ Cup should put the same proviso regarding its races into its agreement with a host track, not in five years but in 2012. The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association’s American Graded Stakes Committee should stipulate that, as of 2012, graded-stakes status will be withheld from any race in which raceday medication is permitted.

Further, the big racing states can take the lead in imposing long suspensions of trainers for an agreed-upon number of drug violations as well as an irrevocable lifetime ban for habitual flagrant behavior. MLB has accommodated concerns about due process and so can racing.

All of this is good for business, and is therefore enlightened self interest. The pari-mutuel product will be more appealing and racing’s image will be enhanced. A byproduct of no raceday medication should be popular breeding stallions and broodmares with fewer soundness problems to pass on to their progeny.

Racetracks, state racing commissions, Breeders’ Cup, and American Graded Stakes Committee: Do the right thing and do it before it is too late to salvage a centuries-old cultural icon. You need to hang together or else everyone will hang separately. Don’t let racing die a death by a thousand cuts.


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