08/18/2002 11:00PM

Biszantz blasts surfeit of horse medication

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Gary Biszantz, the chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, has always been outspoken.

On Sunday, he lived up to his reputation with a sometimes stinging criticism of the racing industry and veterinarians over the permissive use of medication. Biszantz, a prominent California owner and breeder, made his comments during a presentation at the Jockey Club's Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing at the Sheraton Hotel.

Biszantz received the longest and loudest applause of any speaker at the conference, which included presentations on the globalization of racing, marketing horse ownership, and an update on the horse genome project.

Biszantz, who has turned much of his attention to racing issues since selling the company he founded, Cobra Golf, in the late 1990's, criticized veterinarians for administering unnecessary medications to horses. He frequently turned to data produced by the Jockey Club that shows horses are making far fewer starts per year than 30 years ago while racing for an average of only two years compared with an average career of four years in 1970. During that time, Biszantz said, medication use has increased dramatically.

"The trend is down in every five-year period that we look at, as far as the opportunity for a horse to race," Biszantz said. "Field sizes have diminished, veterinary bills have escalated to record heights at the expense of owners, in an industry that desperately needs the owners to fare better if you are going to ask them to stay in the game and reinvest. These graphs do not lie, and some in the veterinary community have had a difficult time accepting the reality at the risk of giving up income. The dollars do speak loudly."

Biszantz and TOBA are involved in the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, a coalition of racing officials, horsemen, and regulators that seeks to develop uniform medication rules for all U.S. racing jurisdictions.

Racing officials involved in the coalition said on Monday that Biszantz's criticism underscores the urgency felt by the reformers.

"There's more momentum behind this than at any other time in history," said David Switzer, the executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, a horsemen's group that supports the reform effort.

To date, the reform group has raised $625,000, according to Dr. Scot Waterman, the executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Task Force on Drug-Testing and Medication, who also spoke at the Round Table. Most of the funding will go to research projects, such as developing tests for new drugs.

Waterman said the reform group is making progress. "The alternative, the status quo, is unacceptable," he said.

The globalization presentation was organized by the NTRA, the marketing group that merged with the Breeders' Cup last year. Since the merger, the NTRA has been attempting to increase the international draw of the Breeders' Cup races. It also has renamed the Breeders' Cup the World Thoroughbred Championships.

NTRA officials suggested that horse racing can tap into an estimated $85 billion in handle outside the U.S. by better promoting the domestic racing product and pushing for legislation that would open up foreign markets.

"The world is a much smaller place now," said Tim Smith, the commissioner of the NTRA. "Horse racing is one of those sports, like golf, that crosses borders with ease."

However, Greg Avioli, the NTRA's deputy commissioner, said that several difficult legislative hurdles will have to be cleared before the U.S. racing industry can begin to tap foreign markets. Tax regulations, for example, largely make commingling foreign wagers into U.S. pools problematic, even when the bets originate in Canada. Many other countries have laws prohibiting betting on foreign racing.

Dr. Doug Antczak, the director of the James A. Baker Institute for Animal Health at Cornell University, offered cautious optimism on the Horse Genome Project, an international effort to map the equine genome. Antczak said the benefits of mapping the genome include identifying the genes that produce soundness in racehorses and developing "better therapeutics and medicines."