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The Medication Conundrum: Drug Regulation Challenges in the Horse Industry

The Medication Conundrum: Drug Regulation Challenges in the Horse Industry
Current drug regulation challenges race and sport horse industries face
Ernest Hemingway traveled with his new bride to Paris for the Christmas holiday in 1921 and wound up staying there for five years. It was the best place to be during the early 1920s and hosted a rich community of prominent writers. Hemingway filled one blue notebook after another with his writing, and when he had spare time he went to the races. An astute handicapper could make decent money betting, he wrote in A Moveable Feast, especially if a person paid close attention to the “boosted horses.”
There was widespread use of performance-altering drugs, Hemingway explained, but identifying the doped horses in the paddock before a race was difficult. Some—the ones that reacted badly to the drugs—were easy to pick out, but the writer often had to rely on tips from insiders. A rudimentary saliva test to detect a few prohibited drugs already was in use in France by the early 1920s, but hardly ever at the tracks Hemingway frequented. It would be another decade before a modified saliva test made its way across the Atlantic to Hialeah Park race track, in Florida.
By the early decades of the 20th century, horse racing’s drug problem had become the sport’s most poorly kept secret. The Jockey Club, the breed registry for Thoroughbred horses in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico, had approved a rule against doping in 1897 but, without a reliable test for illegal drugs, enforcement was problematic and relied on either a witness or a confession. Newspapers railed against the practice, but public indignation was rare. It took the work of a displaced G-man to change things.
The war on illegal drugs in U.S. racing began in earnest during the early 1930s. Leading the campaign was Harry J. Anslinger, who had moved from the soon-to-be-obsolete Commission of Prohibition to head the Treasury Department’s new Bureau of Narcotics. The Bureau was established to stem the tide of illegal drugs sweeping into the U.S., but Anslinger also was concerned about what he saw as the proliferation of drug use among backstretch workers and the doping of horses at the country’s racetracks.
By 1933 Anslinger’s investigators reportedly had gathered evidence—through witness statements or ­confessions—of more than 200 horse doping incidents, some at major tracks involving prominent horsemen. Acting on that evidence, federal narcotics agents conducted a series of well-publicized raids at tracks up and down the Atlantic Coast and in the Midwest that resulted in indictments and arrests of owners, trainers, jockeys, and stable workers. The charges generally were based on possession of illegal drugs, however, rather than attempts to influence race outcomes. Without a test for illegal drugs, there still was no way to prove a horse actually had raced with prohibited substances in its system.
An editorial in Blood-Horse magazine following the raids called out everyone in racing—starting with owners, trainers, and jockeys and moving on to regulatory ­officials—to stop the rampant doping. The next year Hialeah president Joseph E. Widener took up the challenge, imported the French saliva test, and began using it at the Miami track. The result was a horsemen’s ­rebellion.
Amid growing concerns about the new drug testing procedures and enforcement of the “absolute insurer rule,” holding trainers responsible for the condition of horses in their care, the trainers threatened a strike for Florida Derby Day. Widener vowed to stage the closing-day card, and when several strike leaders were barred from the track, the races filled.
Tests for prohibited medications today are more reliable and sensitive, and the absolute insurer rule remains the principal enforcement tool for assigning responsibility after a positive test result. Doping has become more sophisticated as well, however, both at racetracks and at sport horse competitions, and despite an almost perfect record in court, legal challenges to the absolute insurer rule continue.
The disqualification of Kentucky Derby winner Dancer’s Image in 1968 after testing positive for the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone led to years of legal challenges and sweeping changes in track security, testing procedures, and enforcement. In 2018 a Kentucky court ruled that the state’s absolute insurer rule was unconstitutional. An appeal of that decision was pending as of this writing.
The Scope of the Drug Problem
Taken at face value, horse racing’s doping numbers are fine—better than fine, really. In 2014 the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) released one of the most comprehensive reports on testing for prohibited substances in the U.S. The RCI reported that 340,932 “biological samples” were sent to testing laboratories around the country in 2013.
The results were impressive: From those tests there were only 1,140 medication violations, a “clear rate” of 99.67%. Compared with testing for prohibited substances in human sports, racing’s labs tested more samples and still fared slightly better than the United States Anti-­Doping Agency (clear rate of 99.55%) and the World Anti-Doping Association (clear rate of 98.97%). Horse racing’s clear rate was almost as good two years later, 99.63%, according to 2015 Racing Medication & Testing Consortium (RMTC) statistics.
Supporters of racing’s current regulatory scheme could point to the numbers and reasonably ask, “what drug problem?” Skeptics might point to the same numbers and reasonably caution, “not so fast.” To make sense of the statistics, we must put them in context. Not every horse in every race is tested. That would be impractical and prohibitively expensive, with the cost of drug tests running as high as $200 or more per horse in some jurisdictions.
The Jockey Club reported that 43,139 races were run on the flat and over jumps in the U.S. in 2013. Winners of those races account for at least the same number of tests, and perhaps as many as twice that number because RCI reference to tests on “biological samples” could include blood and urine samples from the same horse in a single race. Also included are tests done on “out-of-competition” samples, rather than on those taken post-race.
Every state tests every winner, plus some nonwinners chosen because of suspicious performance. Other horses are chosen for testing at random. A result of this selective testing is that racing’s impressive clear rate is representative of the population of horses racing or in training, but necessarily incomplete. A comprehensive clear rate, a number that truly represents how many horses are running with prohibited medications in any given race, might be better or worse than the published numbers. Until racing authorities come up with unlimited funds for testing, though, we can’t know for sure.
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