08/23/2009 3:54PM

Medication: RSVP/ The Speech


Below is the speech you helped me write, delivered this morning at the Jockey Club Round Table. What appears below are my prepared notes, not a transcript, but I don't remember deviating significantly from my script.

Here are links to the original posts to which you responded with over 550 comments:







Transcripts of the entire Round Table will be posted at http://www.jockeyclub.com/roundtable_09.asp.  
by Tuesday at noon. Click here for Matt Hegarty's reporting on today's proceedings.



AUGUST 23, 2009

Thank you for inviting me to speak today, and for recognizing the often unheard voices of racing’s customers. My assignment for today was to report to you on how Thoroughbred racing’s medication issues are perceived by our fans. When I received this assignment back in June, I decided to make this an exercise in participatory journalism. It seemed that the best way to find out how our customers perceive medication issues might simply be to ask them. So I posed the same question put to me by the Jockey Club to the readers of my blog on drf.com. I did not ask them any specific questions or attempt to frame the debate. I simply told them I needed their help to write this speech and asked them how they perceived medication issues in Thoroughbred racing.

The response was astounding -- in its volume, in its tone and in its content. I’ll share a few thoughts on each. The sheer size of the response was unexpected and overwhelming. On a busy week, we might receive a dozen letters to the editor at the racing form. A typical blog entry might attract 25 responses. But on this topic, I knew we were seeing something profoundly different when I received 200 responses in the first three days. Our blogging software only accepts 100 comments per topic, so I actually had to repost my initial inquiry six times to accommodate what turned into 550 responses in less than a month.

As for tone, I can’t emphasize strongly enough that these were not the complaints of horseplayers who had just lost a photo. They were, for the most part, lengthy and thoughtful responses. There was more sadness than anger, more frustration than complaint. Dozens if not hundreds of responses began along the lines of, “I love racing, but...." And where they went from there surprised even me.

Comment after comment repeated the same themes:

*Drugs in racing are out of control; the inmates are running the asylum;

*There must be swifter, harsher justice, and more punitive penalties -- zero tolerance, three strikes and you’re out of the game.

*Punish the owners.

*Suspend the horses.

These are our fans’ perception of what racing needs to do about the abuse of medication in racing. And please keep in mind that while these may sound like the demands of an angry vigilante lynch mob, these are in fact the sentiments of some of your most loyal and most thoughtful customers.

I felt their pain at what they think has happened to their game, but I also felt that it was time for a reality check. And after the first 400 comments, one presented itself. On July 16, the Texas Racing Commission ordered a six-month suspension of the nation’s leading trainer because of a positive finding for a topical anesthetic in the winner of a maiden race a year earlier. Without belaboring the details of the case, this penalty was ordered despite the absence of any plausible veterinary scenario in which this drug had been administered, and of a finding so infinitesimally small that no one credibly could argue it had had any pharmacological effect on the horse’s performance.

I asked the respondents who had already posted comments, without agreeing or disagreeing with them, if what they really wanted was what they had been suggesting. Assuming the suspension – which is under appeal – were sustained: Did they really want the trainer to be thrown out of the game? Did they really want all of his horses removed from their stalls and turned over to outside trainers rather his assistants? Should all of the owners he trains for also to be sanctioned? Should the hundreds of horses who have run under his name this year barred from competition? Should Rachel Alexandra not be permitted to race again this year? As it turned out, no one really wanted to answer those ques tions. Only a few even tried. And after another week, the discussion simply petered out. Since then, I have been trying to digest and interpret the strange turn that this exercise took as it neared its end. And here is what I think.

Our fans are convinced, with good reason, that there is something rotten in the state of racing, but more than anything else they are completely confused about what is really going on – and so are almost all of us who work in the industry or represent it.

We make virtually no distinction between therapeutic medications that have a proper and even humane role in the treatment of these animals, and the abusive use of serious drugs. We make no distinction between marginal overages of medicine and the deliberate use of nefarious chemicals. And thus we have a seemingly constant barrage of news about failed drug tests and repeat offenders -- yet absolutely no one seems able to distinguish between minor administrative matters and serious crimes, between overzealous regulation and evidence of truly criminal activity.

Of course we have a problem with drugs in racing. We probably always have, and perhaps we always will. But we’re not going about rooting it out the right way. And in failing to do so, we’re both worsening the perception, and failing to address the reality, of the problem. It has been tempting in the past for racing to throw up its hands over this issue and act like a helpless victim. We’re good at saying that we don’t have the money, or the authority of a league office, to effect real change. Sometimes we get so disheartened that we start going down the cowardly and dangerous road of throwing up our hands and saying, “Let’s invite the Federal Government to take this whole thing over,” which strikes me as a prescription for disaster.

I personally don’t believe we need to go down that road. I think we can do a lot better on our own. And occasionally we do. The industrywide ban on anabolic steroids may have happened for all the wrong reasons – a coincidence of language involving a serious problem in baseball that may not have been that serious a problem in horse racing. But it was something that had to be done because there was simply no way, in a frenzied atmosphere about steroids and sports, that we could defend injecting horses with steroids if we ever wanted to create another new fan. But whatever the reasons, it worked. The industry decided it had to happen, and it did.It was done quickly and accepted quickly. Not one of my respondents even mentioned steroids as a problem. The steroid ban may have been cosmetic, but it can and should be a model for our getting equally serious about other abuses and other drugs.

 I will leave you with a final thought: Despite doping scandals in baseball and cycling that may well be even more pervasive than our own, baseball stadiums are doing brisk business and Europeans still line the streets for the Tour de France. After spending years in denial, officials of both of those sports eventually came clean and said something simple and straightforward that racing’s leaders need to say:

We have a problem with medication, and we’re going to do something about it.

While it may be a tough road from there to reality, it’s past time for racing to make that simple statement – and I guarantee you that it would be a giant first step in changing the perceptions of our fans and bettors, without whom we will have no sport at all. Thank you for your time and your attention.

berniev More than 1 year ago
Well done speech. But lets call a spade a spade mr. asmussen has had previous drug violations, plus other infractions that should be read into this record, a jockey riding a prep race for a stake race was suspended for a less than sparkling ride for 1 year, his name is Meche. The trainer of course was asmussen, so lets not paint this guy as hollier than thou. How many infractions has he had since 2000??? I venture to say its more than one.... anyway have a nice day.
e. factor More than 1 year ago
aren't all drug violations contrary to federal law for tampering with the outcome of a public sporting event??? involve the fbi and issue lifetime bans
David Rubinstein More than 1 year ago
Steve, Let me preface this by saying that I've read and enjoyed your books and love your blog, which I read all the time when I can get my Man's moment away from my professional and family responsibilites. But I have a problem with the speech, and that is that you raised a great, and the right, question, but failed to offer an answer to it. I believe it was Assmussen suspension to which your referred, but whomever the trainer was I remember the incident to which you referred, and agree that the ruling was overkill, an injustice. I looked for you to state that a distinct had to be drawn, that there was a line to be delinated to distinguish between the abuses that are a genuine concern and the blunderbuss application of draconian and in some circumstances unfair penalties that are imposed. In my view your speech punted in this respect, and I say this with the utmost respect for you. As I read your speech I waited for to espouse a line that had to drawn the other miscellaneous cases to which you referred more generally. Instead, I was disappointed because I felt that your speech left the issue hanging vaguely. A rigid application of a rule is a misapplication of a rule. Distinctions need intelligently to be made, I would have liked to see you forcefully, rather than implicitly, make this point. I love you, man, which is why I am being painfully direct in my critique. Rubbing some topical theraputic medication on a horses shin that inadvertently could result in a positive, should not result in the same or a similar penalty for a more obvious drug administration. A mechanism must be arrived at that distinguishes between the two. I would have liked to have heard you say that, and I think that you did, sort of but not forcefully enough. The bottom line is that our self-regulatory system has to be more judicious in administering penalties on a case by case basis, based on the circumstantial evidence being considered. Lumping all "violations" into a single indiscriminate pot is the wrong way to go. True justice cannot be administered in such a fashion, for when this happens true justice rarely in meeted out. A system that affords substantial discretion to learned and trusted officials should be put in place, one that permits the administration of justice to be left to the sound discretion of those entrusted with that duty. For instance, in the legal profession mandatory sentencing guidelines have been the source of much contention and dissatisfaction. In fact,I know of at least one highly competent Federal judge who resigned his position becaise the mandatory guidelines prevented the exercise of judicial discretion based on the fact and circumstances of each individual case, which should be evaluated on its particular set of circumstances. This to me is the problem with the justice system in racing. We must empower the powers that be in our sport to exercise their sound discretion on a case by case basis, rather than on an overly rigid omnibus rule. I felt your speech fell short in this regard. Please know that I love you, your publication and your entire body of work, and that I say this with the utmost respect for you. The answer to the problem you pointed out is to permit the exercise of discretion by those in whom we repose the decision-making power. This, I think, was your point, but I think you fell short in making it. Yours most sincerely, David Rubinstein
beyou More than 1 year ago
Steve, I read your speech/notes and I have to say, wonderful job. I couldn't agree with you more - - this is a problem that the industry better solve before the State and/or Federal government (God forbid) get involved/further involved. Indeed, having Congress trying to set rules or oversee the sport would be a complete disaster. I think we kind of dodged a bullet after Congress took no significant action following the Eight Bells tragedy, but I am not so certain that the feds would leave well-enough-alone should something like that happen again. I also agree with you that the casual fan, or even some us who are involved more that that, don't really know the difference between the various medications that are used on a day-in, day out-basis. Obviously, because horses are living, breathing animals, we know that they need meds to keep them healthy and sound, but, to be completely honest with you, I only know what lasix is used for. Beyond that, I am clueless. And then when you add in other variables like dosages, when horses are allowed to have certain medications relative to a race, etc., the picture just gets more and more muddled. Lastly, we all love this sport - - that is why we are here, and I think that a good portion of those who are involved with the industry love it too. Obviously, there is a large monetary component to the game, but you can't tell me that the trainers, owners, jockeys, exercise riders, members of the press, public handicappers or even the backstretch help wake up ever morning thinking, "Boy, I hate what I do." I think it is to the contrary and even those of us who follow the game on regular basis do so because there is a deep passion for this sport. So, I guess my point is this: Whatever problems there are with drugs/medications, it would be a real shame if the industry cannot solve them itself, especially when it is filled with so many people who love the game; with so many people that have a passion for this sport. I think that there is a genuine will within the industry to address these problems, but I am just not sure why it has taken the industry so long to come up with a solution when the majority of those involved in the game only want what is best for the sport. Thanks again for your comments and, as always, thanks for giving us a place to talk about the sport we love. It is always appreciated.
Mike More than 1 year ago
Steve, Thanks for a great speach involving your blog readers in the process. That was a very thougthful idea. I'm curious. How was your speech received by the Jockey Club?
adam More than 1 year ago
Steve here are my thoughts on the topic of drugs in the horseracing industry. There is only one simple solution and one solution only and you stated it as a question in your article. Put fear into these trainers to make this sport a legit sport not only for the casual fan but for the hardcore bettors, the two dollar bettors and everyone else involved in the sport. If trainers are using illegal drugs and get caught NOT only suspend them, suspend their whole stable. It will not only teach the trainers a valuable lesson about cheating, they will lose their high money clients, they will lose their top horses to other trainers and will be forced to start from scratch. I say scare them straight cause nothing else seems to be working. If you really want to clean up the sport it is time to take extreme procedures. If you don't want to take extreme procedures against these trainers, then stop writing about it, stop crying about it and just let it be. I am sick of listening to everyone cry and whine how the sport of horseracing is suffering when it is the people that actually are involved the most and know the most are the ones who are ruining it. Do something that works or just drop the topic all together and let the sport die as it has been doing for the past 20 years.
alanh More than 1 year ago
Thanks for posting your remarks, Steve -- I was very curious about what you'd end up saying. I liked the way you worked the Asmussen incident in, illustrating just how frustrating these problems are. I think it's sad that the AAEP and horsemans' groups seem to have set their positions on Lasix in stone based on ONE study. If nothing else, maybe your remarks will lead to a really thorough follow-up. A lot of us have our fingers crossed. Thanks again, and good luck with the remainder of the Saratoga meet.
spectacularbid More than 1 year ago
decent speech steve but not what was needed. if i bet 10k per year because i love racing, and not 100k because i don't think it is honest, there is a real problem. doping horses to win a race, or cash a bet, is a crime. treat it like a major crime. put people in jail. let the betters know you are serious. i bet because i have loved the game for 40 years. i limit my bets because i have little faith in the purity of the sport.
JeanneW More than 1 year ago
Great speech. I have long understood why folks think "Zero Tolerance" is a good idea in theory but have rarely been able to convince them that in practice, it is not only impractical, it borders on idiotic. I have also often wondered why members of the racing media have never chosen to educate themselves on the difference between "overages" of a legal substance and the presence of a banned chemical. Your speech points out that there IS a difference and that it is a key element in the conversation.
rick More than 1 year ago
If nothing else Steve, you forwarded the concerns of the driving force behind this game, wagering dollars. Good job, and well said. I love horse racing, and think horses are amazing and need proper treatment, but I'm not overly fond of this animal at all, I gamble. A certain percentage of us feel the same way. But one thing is certainly also true, drugs dash the game's credibility, and when fans leave, handle does too. And for the fans who stay, our confidence in what we are betting on is maginal at best. Cleaning up the game increases cutomer confidence...and we are customers, right?