Archive for drugs

How Much Attention Should Racing Pay to the Sensationalism of the New York Times???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Mitchell of The Bloodhorse…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Rogue Reporting

The sledgehammer-like beating the Thoroughbred racing industry has taken recently in the New York Times over drug use has been hailed by many owners and racing organizations that want the industry to clean up its act. The coverage, which has cast racing in the worst possible light through slanted reporting and faulty statistics, has been widely expected by anti-drug supporters to accelerate change.

But these advocates have hitched their horse to the wrong wagon. Instead of rallying behind a champion, they’re giving credence to gross misrepresentations of the sport and allowing racing to be buried under a mountain of unchallenged and unmitigated negativity. This is dangerous policy for an industry that acknowledges a severe perception problem already exists in the minds of casual fans or non-fans of the sport.

Are there problems in Thoroughbred racing? Sure. Are there people trying to beat the system and ignoring what is in the best interest of their horses? Yes. Are these bad apples a substantial subset of racing’s owners, breeders, and trainers? A resounding no.

Super testing done in 2001 and 2002 on 1,596 samples from racing Thoroughbreds, including some samples retested with more sensitive equipment, found 98.7% of the samples were clean.

Without question, racing needs leadership to implement a system that punishes the cheaters and bans repeat violators from the sport, possibly sending them to jail. But the Times series is not moving us closer to this goal. The sensationalistic reporting has not advanced the The Jockey Club’s proposed medication reform rules across all racing jurisdictions. The reporting has not caused any jurisdiction to join Kentucky in taking even a baby step toward outlawing Salix.

Why? Because the Times seems to be taking the tack that sensationalism is more important than meaningful facts. Instead of shedding light and educating, its reporting screams and exaggerates. In the paper’s middle-of-the-front-page Sunday launch to its campaign against racing March 25, it quoted statistics compiled from race charts. One had to hunt for the explainer text buried inside, noting the statistics were for “breakdowns or signs of injury.” Lots of inflammatory text about incidences wrapped around pictures of dead horses and paralyzed jockeys obscured problems with the reporting. One problem is the statistics combined Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred racing, which are entirely different breeds and very different styles of racing. Problem two is that incidences include horses that may have been pulled up in a race, walked off the track, and were found later to have minor, treatable injuries. If the article had focused on the national Equine Injury Database, which monitors only fatalities in Thoroughbreds and has data verified by veterinarians, many of these “incidences” would have been cut in half.

The Times has been handling racing in this way for some time. Columns and editorials about drugs in racing have continued mentioning the breakdown of Eight Belles long after it had been proved the filly was clean, and all the racing industry has done is wring its collective hands. In its reporting on medication issues, the Times regularly exaggerates and misstates drug issues, most recently equating total carbon dioxide overages with “doping horses.” Milkshaking, while banned, involves baking soda, water, and sugar. No drugs are involved.

We should not be fooled into believing the Times is out to help horse racing; it is out to help the Times by attracting readers with sensational stories and grim photos designed to attract national awards—all at the expense of racing. If the newspaper actually cares about the sport, why doesn’t it present balance in its coverage? Instead, to garner maximum attention year after year, it rolls out the negative story timed to coincide with the Triple Crown series.

Unfortunately, the Times has been wracked by its own scandals, numerous times involving false and made-up reporting. The unimpeachable reputation the Times once deservedly earned seems no longer to exist. We have no access to the Gray Lady’s inner sanctum, but what a shame it would be if the motivation behind this series is to simply inflame emotions over drugs and animals in the hope of garnering some journalist laurels. Judging by its record, self-reward rather than racetrack reform seems to be the motive.

The racing industry should immediately cease condoning these articles in the Times and attempting to use them as its stalking horse. If it does not, it may one day find that even when Thoroughbred racing succeeds in ridding itself of all drugs, there won’t be enough people left who care anymore; that irreparable damage has been done by the blizzard of bad publicity.


Is I’ll Have Another’s Trainer a Representation of What is Wrong With Racing????

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Why I’m Not Rooting For ‘I’ll Have Another’ In the Preakness


For want of a nail the shoe was lost
For want of a shoe the horse was lost
For want of a horse the rider was lost
For want of a rider the battle was lost
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
-English Proverb

As much as I would like to again see a Triple Crown winner in Thoroughbred racing, as much as I think the sport could so use a boost these dark days, I will not be rooting for I’ll Have Another this Saturday afternoon in the 137th Preakness Stakes at Maryland’s Pimlico Race Course. And I’d like to tell you why.

I have nothing against the horse, of course. He ran a great Kentucky Derby two weeks ago and was a worthy winner over the breathlessly game Bodemeister. And I have nothing, either, against I’ll Have Another’s jockey, Mario Gutierrez, whose rags-to-riches story is one of the best of the year. If they win again, and have a chance for a Triple Crown in three weeks at Belmont Park in New York, here’s hoping that Gutierrez is every bit as much a part of the story as his horse.

But I’m not rooting for I’ll Have Another because I am not a fan of trainers whose drug suspensions are endlessly stayed. I am not a fan of track officials and state regulators who slap wrists. I am not a fan of owners who tolerate it. And I am not a fan of an industry that allows all of this to occur and then turns to the betting public and its fans says “we are doing what we can about racing integrity.” No, sir. Not for me. I’ll be rooting for another horse and hoping, as always, that they all make it back home safe to the barn.


Doug O’Neill trains the Derby winner. I had never heard of him before this year’s stakes season but I thought he was pitch-perfect on Derby Day itself. The first I heard of his California record was after the Derby. I just stumbled across the news by chance at Ray Paulick’s website, PaulickReport, which has been reporting on the story for years (here’s a good piece from 2010). Within days of the Derby, the story had migrated from inside the industry to the mainstream media. Joe Drape and Walt Bogdanich at the New York Times, with another trenchant piece, wrote this last Thursday as their lede:

Last summer, the trainer Doug O’Neill was formally sanctioned after one of his racehorses at Hollywood Park in California tested positive for illegal drugs. A year before, in 2010, O’Neill was punished for administering an illegal performance-enhancing concoction to a horse he ran in the prestigious Illinois Derby — the third time he had been accused of giving a horse what is known as a milkshake. Four months later, he was accused again of giving a milkshake to a horse in California.

Over 14 years and in four different states, O’Neill received more than a dozen violations for giving his horses improper drugs. O’Neill’s horses also have had a tendency to break down. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the horses he trains break down or show signs of injury at more than twice the rate of the national average.

The point I want to make here is a relatively small one in the context of what this means. Whether O’Neill is guilty or not of the pending violation, there is no excuse for these sorts of suspensions to linger unresolved for years. We are told that O’Neill faces a possible 180-day suspension–for a test that occurred in August 2010. His answer? “I swear on my kids’ eyes i never milkshaked a horse,” O’Neill said last week. Because regulators and judges in California couldn’t resolve the case sooner, a local problem became an international one in the middle of racing’s Triple Crown. For the want of a nail…

Can you imagine any professional sport or enterprise tolerating such a delay between the announcement of an offense and the disposition of one? There is an entire class of trainers, in both Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing, whose members go about their daily jobs under suspended sentences–in legal limbo but free to make a living, earn more purse money, and create the kind of gash marks on the sport that O’Neill’s case has created over the past two weeks.

Trainer gets suspended for doping horse. Trainer appeals suspension. Trainer gets stay of suspension pending appeal. Trainer and lawyer undertake administrative hearing. Regulators take their time to rule. Ruling gets appealed to state court. Hearing is held. Judge takes her time to rule. This happens every day in North American horse racing and it’s what is happening in the O’Neill case. If he is guilty, he should long ago have been forced to serve his punishment. If he is not, because of California’s testing protocols, then that system itself should long ago have been fixed.

Perhaps the best way to describe this dynamic is to think of it as one giant industry-sanctioned bail/bond program. The suspects get to go on with their lives while evidence of their alleged crime is debated languidly. The logic is both clear and perverse. Even though the fines are miniscule compared to the purse money, trainers like O’Neill won’t accept punishment until their rights are fully adjudicated. It takes forever for those rights to be adjudicated under the current system. And because it takes so long, regulators and judges are loathe to preclude suspects from earning a living in the meantime.

Know what horse racing needs? It needs its own Drug Court–an independent body which can quickly adjudicate doping disputes. It needs an enforcement mechanism by which the current model–where overburdened, understaffed regulators hand off trainer doping cases to overburdened, understaffed state judges–gives way to something faster and stronger. A trainer wants to appeal a suspension? Fine. The industry should guarantee that trainer a right to a “speedy” disposition. In return, the industry should demand the trainer’s purse money be held in escrow pending the outcome.


The O’Neill story indeed puts horse racing into a terrible bind. On the one hand, the industry surely wants to see “I’ll Have Another” win the Preakness to keep alive a Triple Crown hope for the year (the last horse to win was Affirmed in 1978). But on the other hand the industry surely understands that the hotter the spotlight shines on O’Neill the more it will expose the inherent contradictions and consistent failures of the sport’s drug enforcement policies and priorities.

The idea that a Triple Crown-winner trainer could shortly thereafter be suspended from racing for 180 days is even worse than is the idea that The Times is doing stories in mid-May about horse doping. It will be interesting to see, therefore, how NBC handles the O’Neill story when it covers the big race on Saturday. Surely the network cannot bury the controversy. Nor can it highlight it. But wouldn’t it be a great gift to the sport if the broadcast team were to shine a light on racing’s inability to timely convict or exonerate its suspected cheaters? Surely Costas and company would have no dearth of interviewees.

The scandal here, if there is one, isn’t just that a Derby-winning trainer has a mixed record and current legal headaches. The scandal here is that the industry has treated O’Neill no differently than thousands of other suspected trainers, jockeys and drivers over the past decades. I understand the presumption of innocence as much as the next fellow. But there is a difference between protecting that presumption and living up to the responsibility that racing participants have toward one another–and toward the public. The sooner the industry bridges this gulf, the stronger it will be.


Oh, yes. The race! I like to watch the Preakness (All Hail Kegasus!) more than the Derby itself because there are fewer horses and thus fewer chances for accidents or bad racing luck. The luckiest Derby winners often are exposed in the Preakness. This year, only 11 horses entered the second-leg of the Triple Crown. Bodemeister is back, as a somewhat surprising morning-line favorite, and so is my sentimental Derby pick, Creative Cause, whose 71-year-old trainer Michael Harrington just saddled his first-ever Derby entry.

And so is Went The Day Well. Here’s how Drape and Bogdanich, in their Times piece, compared O’Neill’s record with the record of Went The Day Well’s trainer, Graham Motion:

Nationally, thoroughbred horses break down or show signs of injury at a rate of 5.1 per thousand starts, according to the Times’s analysis of more than 150,000 races over the past three years. In more than 2,300 starts, horses trained by O’Neill show a breakdown or injury frequency more than double that rate, at 12.0 per thousand starts.

“It’s a horrible statistic to be associated with,” O’Neill said.

In comparison, horses in the care of Motion — one of the trainers without a single drug violation and who will race Went the Day Well in the Preakness Stakes next Saturday — have started nearly 1,900 races and broken down or showed signs of injury in just 0.5 per thousand start

All of a sudden, a Triple Crown winner this year doesn’t seem that great, does it? I didn’t think so.


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.


How Many Drug Offenses Until Enough Is Enough???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jacqueline Duke of The Blood-Horse…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Enough Already

Ed Martin has said what many in racing have long wished they could—Enough is enough.

The president of Racing Commissioners International has asked New York racing regulators to review trainer Richard Dutrow Jr.’s license with the aim of revoking it.

Martin’s request comes in response to Dutrow’s most recent suspensions. New York stewards gave the trainer 90 days for a positive drug test on a winning horse and for possession of hypodermic needles in his barn. Dutrow has appealed. His attorney has called Martin’s request “unfounded and irresponsible.”

“At some point, an individual who continues to violate the rules of racing forfeits through his own actions the ability to be in the game,” Martin wrote. “At some point, enough is enough.”

Racing regulators have sanctioned Dutrow at least 64 times for violations in nine different states at 15 different racetracks since 1979, according to Martin. Dutrow’s cavalier attitude doesn’t help. It wasn’t just his admission that he used anabolic steroids, then legal, on 2008 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Preakness Stakes (both gr. I) winner Big Brown, but his flippancy that caused folks to cringe.

“I’ve had so many different suspensions—half of them I deserved; half of them I didn’t,” Dutrow told reporters in 2008. “So the only thing I need is to be allowed to work around the horses, so when they give me back my license after a suspension, man, I’m good to go. And even when I’m on my suspension, I’m going to try and sneak in there and look at my horses. What am I going to tell you, man? I’m a horseman.”

Big Brown on steroids was among the troubling issues that caught the attention of Congress, which grilled racing leaders on the sport’s perceived problems after Eight Belles broke down after the 2008 Derby. Anabolic steroids subsequently were banned in most racing jurisdictions.

Plenty of people in racing bemoan a system that allows certain trainers to rack up innumerable infractions, continue to do business while suspended, and then essentially receive a slap if found guilty. Granted, every citizen deserves due process, but in racing this right can take on ludicrous proportions. Martin’s call for action has resonated.

“A pattern of reckless or intentional disregard for the rules of racing is sufficient grounds on which to base a review of any trainer’s license,” said Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. “Such a disregard may warrant a harsher penalty or, in severe cases, a license revocation. We urge the New York State Wagering and Racing Board to deal with the situation as stringently as it deems appropriate and legal.”

The board of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association is increasingly frustrated by penalties that “are not severe or significant enough to deter people. And when you get a slap on the wrist, for a lot of people it’s just the cost of doing business,” said Dan Metzger, the TOBA president.

While Metzger and others agree medication policies and testing procedures have improved, the penalty phase needs to catch up. “There essentially has to be pain felt for the offenses,” Metzger said.

Other sports impose clear-cut penalties for drug and other violations. In Major League Baseball a third positive for steroids results in a lifetime suspension. Same for the NHL. The NFL has an intervention program while also imposing stiff penalties on players who test positive for banned substances. A first offense earns a four-game suspension; a third offense, and the player sits out for 12 months. The NBA doesn’t cut much slack either. It recently handed Memphis Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo a 10-game suspension even though he claims his positive resulted from an energy drink he bought at a gas station.

How would Thoroughbred racing react if held to the standards demanded by the Federation Equestre International (FEI)? The organization has a zero-tolerance policy, and no one ever wins an appeal. At the 2008 Olympics five riders were disqualified, including American Courtney King-Dye, whose horse tested positive for a small amount of the anti-inflammatory felbinac, which is commonly used in China to relieve arthritis pain in humans. It is widely thought accidental contamination caused the positive. Nevertheless, King-Dye’s disqualification stood as she could not prove how the contamination occurred. Draconian maybe, but effective. Consider that no horse tested positive at the recent World Equestrian Games, conducted under the same FEI rules.

As racing inches toward uniformity, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium proposes rules that would impose greater penalties on repeat offenders. The consortium also wants to extend penalties to veterinarians and possibly owners. But executive director Dr. Scot Waterman cautions that regulators can’t just apply blanket penalties. “I think each violation is unique and is going to have a unique set of circumstances, and the penalty needs to fit those circumstances,” he said.

Few would disagree that those who mockingly and regularly violate the rules of racing should receive the highest possible penalty.