By Barry Irwin
Ten years ago, in an Op-Ed written for The Blood-Horse, I strongly suggested that only by installing USADA to oversee drugs in American racing could our game hope to restore its lost credibility as a sport played on a level playing field, thereby giving our industry its best chance to regain alienated horseplayers and a dwindling fan base because of a public perception that racing was stained by rampant drug use.
Sadly, the same dynamics that were in play in October of 2004 are exactly the ones that continue to dog us today. And the results of more than a decade of inaction and apathy can be read on a daily basis, such as a racetrack grandstand being demolished in Florida, a training center being shuttered in New Jersey and a steady decline in racetrack business at Belmont Park in spite of a Triple Crown coronation.
A Triple Crown is meaningful, but apparently not enough to save even one race meeting at the mecca of the sport in America. And 10 Triple Crown winners in a row will not put enough lipstick on the pig that American racing has become.
But hope is at hand, because a bill naming USADA to head a group to oversee drug policy not only has been introduced in the House of Representatives, it is backed by a strong industry coalition headed by The Jockey Club and the Breeders’ Cup.
The single reason I suggested embracing USADA was their independent status, based on a notion that no industry was capable of policing itself. Even police themselves have independent police boards, I pointed out.
So by naming USADA to set up and implement a drug policy, racing could have an independent entity with the ability to investigate and test drugs. This had the possibility to change racing from being an insiders’ game to one in which the public and its players had confidence.
Right now, I have been reliably informed by an unnamed source at the highest level in one of America’s premier racing venues, that there is absolutely no appetite on either the racetrack or regulatory level to investigate or prosecute drug violators. This will not be an issue with USADA.
Drug testing in and of itself is never going to solve racing’s problems, just like it never solved the issues in cycling or track and field. But adequate testing is important for its ability to create a strong deterrent and to identify and verify an illegal substance.
Lance Armstrong was not drummed out of cycling because he failed a drug test. When the U. S. government went after him only to drop its case, USADA doggedly kept to the task and in the end was able to achieve its goal of thoroughly exposing the most well-known sports cheater of our lifetime.
Only drugs that are known can be tested for and only through investigative work can these drugs be discovered. They can be verified by testing. So the two go hand in hand.
Today in American racing, there are drugs whose origins are not known. There are also drugs whose identities are well known, but whose properties make them only detectable for a few short hours after they have been injected into a horse. The phenomenon of micro-dosing, in which several small doses of drugs are injected close to competition, also makes detection of known drugs problematical.
If cheaters in racing are to be found, those charged with catching the cheaters need to have every advantage available to them. This means they need to have a budget that will allow them to have enough boots on the ground to do testing “out of competition,” and at odd hours of the day when nefarious activities are conducted. And importantly, they need to have a horse’s system cleansed of the residue of other drugs and not allow diuretics to be used to flush out evidence of micro-dosing or mask drugs.
Standing in the way of USADA being named to oversee drug policy in racing is the issue of Lasix and the stance on drug use by two opposing groups in favor of banning all race-day medication.
One group, WHOA (Water Hay Oats Alliance) backs the current legislation introduced by Congressmen Andy Barr and Paul Tonko, which has opted to use the medication guidelines currently used by several state racing jurisdictions as a baseline for USADA to use in formulating its final policy on drug use. A splinter group of purists have called for Federal Legislation to ban the use of all drugs.
There is little to no difference between the goals of both groups, which both want to see the eventual elimination of race-day drugs.
In reality, there is only one race-day drug used in most jurisdictions and this is Lasix. And discussion and invocation of the drug has served only to cloud the issue.
The only reason Lasix is even part of any discussion is because it is the last drug standing on race day in most places. If that drug were some other medication, then the focus would be on that substance.
Proponents of Lasix point out the benefits of using the drug and the dangers in not using it. Anti-Lasix folks do not want to be drawn into any discussions about the pros or cons of Lasix use and simply say there is no place in sports for drugs.
I support the Barr-Tonko legislation in great part because it does not get into the short strokes about specific drugs, especially Lasix, at this early juncture in the proposed lifespan of USADA as the possible overseer of drug policy. As much as I want racing to be drug-free, I am willing to sublimate my own desires and place my trust in USADA that after due consideration on the subject they will come up with the best plan for racing.
Right now–today–I am not concerned with Lasix. I am totally concerned with the use of PEDs. It is because of my all-consuming desire to see PEDs drummed out of racing that I first suggested the naming of USADA as the overseer of drug policy. Our sport is under siege from cheaters tilting the playing field, not from trainers and vets desiring to use Lasix.
The Barr-Tonko bill is not an elaborate scheme designed by anti-drug forces bent on getting rid of Lasix. If this were the case, then the splinter group would never have broken off from WHOA.
I would gladly allow every horse in our sport to use Lasix if the trade-off were an all out war on PEDs. I got in this fight to get rid of PEDs, not Lasix. Cheaters are the enemy of our sport, not Lasix. Lasix is being used by both sides to cloud the real issue, which is clean sport.
And only by installing an independent group like USADA does our sport have any chance to survive the remainder of this decade. Our sport is slipping through our hands and contracting on a daily basis. We need to do something significant to stem the tide of losing fans and more horseplayers.
Now that racing is on the threshold of actually doing something about this, I hope we are not going to let petty differences keep us from our goal of cleaning up our sport.
If anything is ever going to change, now is the time.