Senate hearing reveals the realities of doping in horse racing

Senate hearing reveals the realities of doping in horse racing

Committee investigates whether a national set of standards for performance-enhancing medications is a possible solution.
Sep 01, 2012

In July, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the Interstate Horse Racing Act, held a hearing on medication and performance enhancing drugs in horse racing, chaired by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM). The issue at hand is that unlike other sports, horseracing lacks a commission or a league office that can issue uniform rules. "State racing commissions routinely impose small fines and short suspensions," Udall said. "There is minimal deterrence, and chronic doping continues unabated." Industry experts testified about the perceptions and realities of doping and what could or should be done to fix the sport. The committee is investigating whether a national set of standards for performance-enhancing medications is a possible solution.

Perception vs. reality

Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association and chairman of the group's medication committee said the National HBPA's position on performance-enhancing drugs is zero-tolerance. "Owners and trainers who cheat by administering drugs that have no legitimate use in horses to win races should be kicked out of racing," Stirling said. "The use of drugs like snake venom and the recently reported opiates (dermorphin) is doping, plain and simple."

With that said, data that state racing authorities have compiled shows that doping of Thoroughbred racehorses in the United States is rare. Racing commissions test at least two horses in every race—that's a 25 percent sample of all horses racing in the U.S. From 2009 to 2011, there were nearly 300,000 post-race blood and urine tests conducted. Only 82 tested positive for drugs that were used to enhance performance or to cheat. That means roughly 99.9 percent of all tests were negative for doping substances. During that same three-year period, state racing authorities licensed 5,800 trainers. On average, 12 trainers per year were guilty of illegally doping horses, according to state regulatory data, meaning 99.8 percent of all trainers did not dope horses. "These statistics should be the envy of every other sport that tests for drugs, like professional football, baseball, cycling, to name a few," Stirling said.

Stirling also noted that the NHBPA does not oppose the controlled use of therapeutic medication used to treat injuries and infirmities—medications like furosemide, which acts to prevent pulmonary hemorrhaging. While Stirling believes that doping is rare, Barry Irwin, CEO of Team Valor International, said racing commissions operate with hands tied because the organizations can only test for what they know. "There are probably plenty of positives that we don't about because we don't know what drugs are being used, so we can't test for them," Irwin said. "These are 'designer' drugs that we'll find out about later that are being used today, but that won't come to the surface until later." Irwin said the real problem is that there are too many enablers, and as long as there are people who are willing to cheat, there is going to be an appetite for those drugs. Until there's a way to eliminate cheating, the culture can't change.

But others on the panel said there has been change and progress over the last few years. James Gagliano, president of The Jockey Club, said some improved regulations have made racing more uniform across jurisdictions. For example, anabolic steroids are virtually banned across all pari-mutuel states. Kentucky is on the road to eliminating the use of Lasix. New Mexico and California more strictly regulate Clenbuterol. "But, that is not enough," he said. "Regulations vary too widely in racing states, there is no central authority or set rules and rigorous enforcement is lacking."

What's more, according to Gagliano, the definition of performance-enhancing drugs is too vague, unscientific, and fails to differentiate between drugs administered only for therapeutic reasons and drugs with no use except performance-enhancement. The reform medication rules, on the other hand, classify only 25 therapeutic drugs, and only if they are withdrawn well before a race. This is based on significant veterinary consensus, he said. All other medications are always prohibited.