08/09/2016 11:33AM

Debate continues on medication policies


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Racing officials continued to clash on the need for federal legislation that would seek to nationalize the sport’s medication policies during a panel Tuesday morning at a conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., underlining the persistence of an issue that has polarized large racing constituencies for several years.

The subject at the center of the debate Tuesday at the annual Equine, Racing, and Gaming Law Conference was federal legislation that would appoint a private, non-profit company, the United States Anti-Doping Agency, as the overseer of racing’s medication and drug-testing policies. The kernel of the legislation, which has been introduced to the House but has not been scheduled for a hearing, has been a topic of controversy for nearly five years, creating seemingly unbridgeable fissures in the racing industry.

Two of the officials on the Tuesday panel have been at the forefront of the controversy since it erupted, but the two other panelists have only recently emerged as front-line advocates. Those newcomers – Joe De Francis, the former Maryland racing executive who is now the head of a racing committee of the United States Humane Society, and Joe Gorajec, the former head of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission – both outlined their own arguments for support of the legislation, drawing rebukes from the other panelists.

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De Francis, whose family owned Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, said that racing needed to demonstrate a much stronger response to medication use because of the rapidly changing shift in attitudes regarding animal-welfare issues, even if perceptions of widespread cheating in racing “may be fair, or they may be unfair.” He said that the best way to demonstrate that commitment would be to support the federal legislation.

“We are in the middle of an absolute revolution in public attitudes about the welfare of animals,” De Francis said, citing recent policy changes at marine parks and circuses. While acknowledging that racing states have made progress in recent years in adopting stricter rules and tougher penalties, he also said that without passage of the federal legislation, the racing industry “is headed into a downward spiral in which there will be no recovery.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Humane Society announced the launch of the advisory council headed by De Francis, stating that it intended to make lobbying for the legislation a major focus of its public-policy pushes. Gorajec, who was fired by the Indiana racing commission last year after he refused to step down amid complaints about his aggressive pursuit of medication violations, was named as a member of the advisory council at the time it was launched. 

Gorajec on Tuesday was critical of the ongoing state-by-state effort to adopt a set of uniform rules, stating that the problem with the effort was not in what it was pursuing, but rather what it was not. He said the effort falls short, for example, by failing to press for the much wider use of out-of-competition testing, which is considered the best method to catch cheaters using sophisticated, hard-to-detect designer substances. And like, De Francis, he said racing’s biggest problem was public perception, citing the results of a survey last year conducted by Daily Racing Form in which two-thirds of the respondents said they did not believe that states were doing an effective job catching cheaters.

“Simply stated, our fans don’t trust the integrity of our product,” Gorajec said.

Alan Foreman, the chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, countered that the federal bill likely violates provisions in the Constitution that prohibits the delegation of regulatory powers to a private company, a legal argument that has been increasingly vocalized by opponents of the legislation in the last several months. Foreman also defended the state-by-state effort that he has aggressively pushed in the Mid-Atlantic region, stating that it has resulted in meaningful progress throughout the industry.

“Do we need the federal government or a private authority do what we do as an industry better than we have ever done before?” Foreman said.

Like Foreman, Ed Martin, the president of the American Association of Racing Commissioners International, an umbrella group for state racing commissions which recommends model rules to its members, defended the current state-by-state approach, including the RCI’s efforts to expand out-of-competition testing. Martin also continued to criticize supporters of the federal legislation for mischaracterizing the extent of the use of illegal medications in racing, citing the use of the term “doping” by some supporters when referring to furosemide use.

“Everyone at this table is well-meaning,” Martin said. “Everyone at this table loves this sport. But this sport is killing itself. It’s killing itself with a political divide.”