Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015

There has been a lot of discussion about the Barr-Tonko legislation (H.R. 3084) and whether it is necessary to improve racing. The primary proponent of the legislation is the Coalition for Horseracing Integrity. The Coalition represents a diverse group of horse racing and animal welfare organizations including The Jockey Club, Breeders’ Cup Ltd., the Water Hay Oats Alliance, the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders.

On the other side, the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) and the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) oppose the legislation.

Ostensibly, the Bill is supposed to improve the integrity and safety of Thoroughbred horseracing by requiring a uniform anti-doping program to be developed and enforced by an independent Thoroughbred Horseracing Anti-Doping Authority (THADA). While it is true there is not absolute uniformity across jurisdictions currently, all or part of the groups that favor the legislation must also believe horseracing in its current form is corrupt, inept, unsafe or all three, a conclusion that flies in the face of statistics published by ARCI. Why else would we need federal legislation unless the only thing standing between failure and prosperity is regulatory uniformity, and the only way to get it was HR 3084?

Less than one-half of one percent of all urine and blood tests come back with a positive for a substance overage, and of those only a very small percentage are not related to approved therapeutic medications. In other words, on the face of it, the urgency of Barr-Tonko is that the handful of Class 1 or 2 violations (out of the hundreds of thousands of races run every year) not related to therapeutic medication or environmental contamination are convincing proof the system needs serious repair.To believe these statistics are wrong, you have to believe either

  • Like many of the people in the recently completed DRF survey, you are convinced that no matter what statistics say, trainers are spiking their horses with great regularity and getting away with it; or
  • ARCI is corrupt and hiding the real numbers; or
  • The jurisdictions are selective or inconsistent in their enforcement; or
  • Testing labs are either incompetent, hiding results, or simply not testing for the right performance enhancing substances.

Although the legislation doesn’t say this overtly, it is hard not to conclude there may be one other purpose – to deal with the issue of raceday Lasix. It is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It appears WHOA and the animal welfare folks are not simply hoping to add a layer of bureaucracy on top of that which already exists in the states, but to have one place where they can finally tell all the recalcitrant racing commissions that Lasix four hours before a race is no longer allowed.

Let’s look at the important elements of the bill.

The highlight of the legislation is the establishment of the THADA. THADA is supposed to be independent (whatever that means exactly) and is responsible for developing and administering an anti-doping program for horses, persons and races covered by the Act. I’ll detail just how that differs from the current organization for drug testing below.

The THADA is supposed to be composed of

  • The head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency;
  • Five U.S. ADA board members;
  • Five individuals from different constituencies of the thoroughbred industry.

The U.S. ADA is required to solicit lists of two candidates each from a cross-section of owners, trainers, veterinarians, racing associations, State racing commissions and jockeys. That’s five representatives from six constituencies. It also suggests the U.S. ADA should make an effort to include the most broadly based organization(s) from each constituency.

Notice any group missing? That’s right, the one group that provides the funding for the sport and is most affected by horses that race with illegal levels of medications or drugs, the betting public.

Notice anything else? More than 50% of the THADA is made up of people who were appointed to the U.S. ADA. I looked at each of the members. You have ex-Olympic athletes, a couple of medical doctors, a lawyer, a swimming coach, someone with drug-free kids, and a college professor in sports management. In other words, not one single person who is familiar with horseracing or the use of medications in racing in any sort of depth. You have a majority of non-racing experts to counterbalance the minority of potential experts.

Since the THADA is interested in avoiding any appearance of conflict of interest, the Bill requires nominees to not have a financial interest in, or provide goods and services to covered horses. Officials, officers or anyone else that works in policymaking or governance for any throughbred industry representative are similarly disallowed. Finally, any employees or people having a business relationship with the individuals or organizations described above are also disallowed.

Huh? I must not be reading this right, because it seems to say all the groups that are supposed to be on the board – owners, trainers, vets, racing associations, State racing Commissions and jockeys – appear to be immediately disqualified because they are associated with racing.

This is the exact language:

(c) CONFLICTS OF INTEREST.—To avoid any conflict of interest, no nominee or board member shall be—

(1) an individual who has a financial interest in or provides goods or services to covered horses;

(2) an official, officer, or serve in any governance or policymaking capacity for any Thoroughbred industry representative; or

(3) an employee or have a business or commercial relationship with any of the individuals or organizations described in paragraphs (1) or (2).

You can tell me if I am not reading that correctly.

The Bill also provides for the development of Standing Committees comprised of experts. I mention this only because the function of such committees eventually becomes a cost center.

The duties of the THADA will include

(1) lists of permitted and prohibited substances and methods;

(2) a schedule of sanctions for violations;

(3) programs relating to anti-doping research and education;

(4) testing procedures, standards, and protocols for both in-competition and out-of-competition testing;

(5) procedures for investigating, charging, and adjudicating violations and for the enforcement of sanctions for violations; and

(6) laboratory standards for accreditation and testing requirements, procedures, and protocols.

This is pretty standard stuff – in fact, it pretty much is what racing commissions do now. However, bear in mind, that any group with a specific agenda would now only have to convince the THADA to make a rule instead of 38 jurisdictions.

Also, consider one other thing. U.S. law does not apply in Canada. What do we do if Woodbine doesn’t adopt the same standards as THADA?

The authority of THADA is limited by the Bill. While they can decide which substances are permitted and prohibited, what the penalties should be for violations, what testing procedures should be, and how violations should be investigated, charged, adjudicated and enforced, they can’t actually do the work themselves. For that they would be dependent on the States. Perhaps not the most efficient organizational structure.

So to this point we have a THADA board primarily comprised of people outside of horseracing, with no representative from the primary funding group, with the same duties and responsibilities that current racing commissions have for developing drug and medication standards and associated penalties.

While THADA makes the rules and decides HOW they should be investigated, prosecuted, adjudicated and penalized, they leave the actual work of doing those things to the state racing commissions. Once again, the implication is that the state racing commissions are not getting it right, and need to be told what to investigate, how to investigate, and how to punish.

As has been noted, the centerpiece of the Bill is the anti-doping program. The program is required to include

(1) a uniform set of anti-doping rules;

(2) a list of permitted and prohibited substances and methods;

(3) a process for sample collection and analysis and test distribution;

(4) programs for in-competition and out-of-competition testing (including no-advance-notice testing and mandatory reporting of each horse’s location for testing);

(5) investigations related to anti-doping rule violations;

(6) management of violation results;

(7) laboratory accreditation; and

(8) disciplinary hearings, which may include binding arbitration, sanctions, research and education.

Once again, this is pretty much what racing commissions are responsible for now, although if you look at number (4) it seems like they grabbed the language right out of the U.S. ADA handbook. Olympic athletes can be tested anytime they are in training. It will be interesting to see how it goes to test horses as they are coming back to the barn after a gallop just to see if they were juiced up for the exercise. I mean the whole point of horseracing testing is to ensure a horse is not RACING with an illegal level or illegal substance. This out-of-competition testing may make sense for human athletes, but I’m not so sure knowing a horse is at 29 nanograms of Banamine after a workout should be grounds for an enforcement action. All the statistics and all the current testing suggest that unlike, say, cycling, horses are not juicing with steroids and EPOs, and even if they were, they’d get caught on raceday. Unlike most sports, horseracing has zero-tolerance for the kind of performance enhancing substances they are interested in controlling in cycling or the Olympics. Plus, considering how much it is costing just to test horses from a race, how much more would it cost to institute random testing between races?

THADA includes the absolute insurers rule in concept. The problem with the absolute insurers rule in the modern environment is that there are counter measures available to determine instances when the trainer is not responsible for a horse’s bad test. Things like security cameras should be mandatory. Drug testing for backside workers should be required, especially in cases where the measured level indicates an environmental contamination. Pro-active testing of common supplements, including feed, should be required. Requirements for investigations on the part of the enforcing agency need to be incorporated into rules. Once again, there is a missed opportunity to fix the weak parts of current regulations.

The Bill allows THADA to enter into an agreement with the State racing commissions to implement any of the rules developed by the THADA. While the racing commissions cannot be trusted to make the rules, apparently they can be given a chance to enforce the rules. In essence, things look about like they do now, except THADA decides what the rules are. In that case, the existing labs that are doing the sample testing will wind up being the labs doing the testing under the new THADA regime. After all, the states will still be responsible for sample collection and transport to the lab. One more thing that looks like the status quo and obviates the need for overlying federal legislation.

The really bad news is that the Bill states, Nothing in this Act requires the United States Government to provide funding for or to guarantee the debts of the Authority. The funds necessary for the establishment and administration of the Thoroughbred horseracing anti-doping program shall be paid entirely by the Thoroughbred horseracing industry…

The initial funding of the THADA would be done using donations and loans that would be paid back by assessing each jurisdiction a monthly payment. That payment would then be used for the continuing funding of the THADA. I don’t have a calculation handy, but considering the state payments have to fund the operation of THADA and all it’s standing communities, the only thing that stands between us an a multi-million dollar authority is the frugality of the appointed board.

If for no other reason, every serious horseplayer should oppose the legislation because unless states give up a portion of the take going to their operations (not likely since in the end they don’t really have less to do) the take will have to rise to cover the cost of running THADA. The number one issue for serious horseplayers is getting the take reduced, and anything that means it will be raised is not a good thing for us.

If the real purpose of the Bill was only to harmonize medication and drug testing and enforcement, there are avenues that could be explored short of federal legislation. In fact, I’m not sure we could successfully argue efforts to create uniform rules and standards have utterly failed. More and more jurisdictions are adopting ARCI’s uniform medication rules. While it may have taken time, ARCI may have succeeded in eventually getting all the major racing jurisdictions to harmonize.

Given who is supporting the Bill, it is hard to conclude anything other than the hidden agenda is the banning of raceday Lasix in all jurisdictions. Even if you favor a Lasix ban, it would be hard to sustain an argument that necessitated creation of an additional layer of oversight consisting primarily of people who know little about horseracing, and raising the already stiff amount horseplayers pay in the form of the takeout.

WHOA and the other Bill supporters are making an end run around the existing system because they have not been able to get their way by pushing the racing commissions. It is incumbent on these groups to make their argument irresistible if they expect to get their way.

The Barr-Tonko legislation in its current form is at the least flawed and at the most unnecessary. I believe most horseplayers would agree the discussion of medication and drug standards, enforcement, and punishment needs to occur. Harmonization of rules across jurisdictions should be part of that discussion. And when those discussions occur, ALL the stakeholders need to be represented. If HBPA, ARCI, WHOA and the rest of the Coalition for Horseracing Integrity don’t agree to start discussions with a sincere intent of reaching consensus, we may all find ourselves living in a regime none of us really wanted.