Updated on 04/29/2011 10:33PM

Federal regulation could cripple horse racing


If you’ve been wondering about the timing of all the recent calls for medication reform in American racing, the reason became clear last Thursday: That’s when The Associated Press obtained a draft copy of legislation, expected to be submitted to Congress next week, that would establish federal regulation of racing, including harsh penalties for horses and horsemen who violate the new federal standards and a ban on many raceday medications, including furosemide (Lasix).

It’s understandable that racing’s various alphabet-soup organizations would want to get out in front of an impending circus of Congressional hearings, if only to be able to say that the sport is already addressing its problems. What is less understandable is why an increasing number of people within the industry are either neutral or supportive of the prospect of federal involvement, a doomed idea that can only further cripple a fragile sport.

The draft legislation, which has not been finalized or officially released or introduced, illustrates what a dangerous undertaking this is. The proposed bill is full of what may at first sound like properly strong penalties, such as banning trainers for life after a third drug positive, and that “a horse that tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs three times would receive a ban of at least two years.”

Never mind that no horse in the annals of American racing has tested positive three times for performance-enhancing drugs. It sounds tough, so it must be a good idea. Throw the bums out! That attitude – and the publicity the bill’s sponsors will receive by introducing their legislation during Kentucky Derby week – appear to be the drivers of a bill that looks like a remarkable concoction of bad science and bad government.

The bill makes few, if any, distinctions between elephant juice and aspirin, between therapeutic treatment and improper enhancement, or between obvious cheating and accidental contamination. The AP’s headline on its story announcing the bill – “Lawmakers Seek Ban on Doping in Horse Racing” – perfectly encapsulates what is wrong with this approach.

There are three separate issues when it comes to medication and racing, only one of which has anything to do with “doping” – the rare cases of administering powerful illicit performance-enhancing drugs. Such actions already are illegal everywhere racing is conducted. If the cheaters are one step ahead of the testers, then allocate more money to science instead of spending it on a new federal agency that serves no useful purpose.

The second area of medication concern is the overuse of raceday medications such as furosemide, a diuretic used to control exercise-induced bleeding, and analgesics such as phenylbutazone. The racing industry has been arguing the efficacy and ethics of these medications for four decades, and every one of the states that conducts horse racing allows them. Even the most piously anti-medication horse owners in the sport routinely allow their horses to race on them.

You can argue until you’re blue in the face whether furosemide is an evil drug because it “enhances performance,” or a humane therapy because it allows bleeders to race without choking on blood, and I doubt that argument will ever be resolved. The game and the breed would probably be better off without it, but that’s not something for a couple of congressmen to decide. Why suddenly should the federal government decree a ban on it in the absence of any industry or scientific consensus?

The third area of medication concern, besides outright doping and permitted medications, is what might be called “micro-positives” – the unfortunate confluence of get-tough “zero-tolerance” regulations and technological advances that allow the detection of pharmacologically irrelevant traces of drugs. The proposed bill makes no distinctions between the nature and severity of positives, the equivalent of demanding identical prison sentences for a drug lord with a pound of heroin in his car and a law-abiding citizen with a dollar bill in his pocket that has traces of the drug.

Some of the most publicized drug “scandals” in racing have had a Kafkaesque quality where racing commissions admit that a positive involves a finding so small that it can’t possibly have affected a horse’s performance, but say that state statutes still demand a guilty verdict and punishment. At least those situations occur at the state level and are adjudicated by people with some knowledge of the industry and the ability to temper punishments with common sense.

A new raft of ill-informed and unnecessary federal regulations will not prevent doping, solve the debate over therapeutic medications, or distinguish between criminal and meaningless drug positives. It may buy a few politicians some headlines and soundbites, but will only make an already messy situation worse.