08/08/2014 2:02PM

Familiar topic at Jockey Club Round Table


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – One year ago at the Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing, Jockey Club chairman Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps vowed that his organization would throw its considerable weight behind legislation giving the federal government the power to regulate the sport if the vast majority of racing states had not fully adopted a set of uniform rules supported by The Jockey Club by the following August.

It’s August again, and time for another Round Table. And while approximately 10 states have fully implemented the rules and a handful of states are in the process of adopting the regulations, the current roster is far short of the “vast majority” sought by Phipps and The Jockey Club. That has raised questions about what action Jockey Club officials will vow at this year’s Round Table, scheduled for Sunday morning at the Gideon Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs. Will the organization stick to its guns or back off?

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Jockey Club officials would not say whether the organization plans to press forward with lobbying for federal oversight at this year’s event, but it is unlikely that the organization will make a full-throated press for the effort, preferring instead to take a more nuanced, balanced approach. That half-scale retreat will recognize several new realities, including the progress that states have made on the issue, and, more importantly, the belated acknowledgement that lawmakers are unlikely to pass legislation providing federal oversight of the sport anytime soon, according to several officials.

Three variations of the oversight bill – all of which would ban the race-day use of furosemide, or Lasix, one of the most controversial issues in the sport – have been introduced by Jockey Club-friendly legislators during the past three years.

Yet despite congressional hearings that have been highly critical of the sport’s current state-by-state regulatory structure – and some testimony critical of racing’s very existence – none of the bills have been brought up for a vote at any level of government, and there’s no indication that any current or future version of Congress would be willing to take up the bill given the rift in the industry over the need for federal regulation.

“There’s just no shot at this,” said one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “When legislators get these bills, they make calls to five or six important people, and when they do, they quickly find out there’s nowhere near unanimity. And they won’t touch any issue like this without a big majority behind it.”

Just three days before the Round Table, at the Fasig-Tipton sales paddock near Saratoga Race Course, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which conducts political fundraising for racing and coordinates much of the industry’s lobbying campaigns, held a legislative briefing for racing officials and contributors. While the NTRA’s lobbyists have no official position on a federal oversight bill – the NTRA won’t take up legislation that is not fully supported by the industry – its chief lobbyist, Greg Means, predicted that any bill seeking federal regulation would face a difficult path forward in the current political climate of deep partisanship unless the entire industry was on board.

“The first thing Congress does on a tough issue is punt,” said Means.

What’s more, the political mood within the racing industry has soured considerably in the weeks leading up to the Round Table, making consensus even harder to forge. Ten days prior to the tightly scripted event, a group of 25 trainers, including Todd Pletcher and D. Wayne Lukas, released a letter supporting a gradual phase-out of the race-day use of Lasix, which is legally administered on race day to 95 percent of horses in North America to treat bleeding in the lungs.

Many horsemen who support the continued use of Lasix saw the statement as another Jockey Club-backed tactic to press for the elimination of the drug despite the failure of those efforts on the federal and state levels over the past three years.

Jockey Club officials have said the idea for the letter came entirely from the trainers involved. But many horsemen’s groups suspect otherwise, and on Wednesday, four days prior to the Round Table, the presidents of six affiliates of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association accused the anti-Lasix faction of the industry of a “thinly disguised and carefully orchestrated effort” to resurrect the effort to ban Lasix.

“The industry can expect to be lectured once again by the opponents of Lasix, who apparently will pursue federal intervention in our sport if we do not acquiesce to their view,” stated the letter, which was crafted by THA chairman Alan Foreman, who has played an integral role in the efforts to implement the uniform rules in the Mid-Atlantic states. “It is designed to revive a divisive issue that the industry has already debated at great length and settled.”

Bob Curran, a spokesman for The Jockey Club, said the resurrection of the Lasix issue “is not a distraction” to The Jockey Club.

“We are going about our business, advocating for reform and continually affirming and repeating our core belief that horses should compete only when they are free from the influence of medication,” Curran said in an e-mailed response to questions.

This year’s Round Table agenda is not as heavily weighted toward medication reform as in previous years. Its keynote speaker is Brian Rolapp, an executive with NFL Media who is the son of the late president of the American Horse Council, R. Richards Rolapp. Other speakers will talk about using data to improve equine and rider health. Another speaker will outline the results of an analysis of the racing industry’s current drug-testing program, with recommendations about how the industry could work toward a “gold standard” of testing.

As in previous years, the most noteworthy comments at the Round Table likely will arise outside of the official agenda, in the speeches to wrap up the two-hour presentation made by Phipps and Stuart Janney, the vice chairman of The Jockey Club. That’s when Phipps has typically outlined the steps that The Jockey Club is prepared to take to advance its agenda, the steps that have created the most controversy in the industry.

But owing to the realities on Capitol Hill, if Phipps or Janney vow again to go to the federal government, the opposition might have a much different reaction than opprobrium this year. That would run the risk of sounding like the boy in the fable who cried wolf, a story that ended badly for everyone.