03/07/2018 4:00PM

Hovdey: Lasix issue keeps WHOA from moving ahead


The opening salvo of the recent letter crafted by the Water Hay Oats Alliance and signed by 64 trainers read like this:

“As trainers of horses we love, in a sport to which we have devoted our lives, we have taken a stand for clean racing by joining the Water Hay Oats Alliance.”

Hard to quibble with the sentiment. The alliance, better known as WHOA, has been working toward passage of federal legislation called the Horse Racing Integrity Act which would, among other things, ban all race-day medications and place racehorse drug testing under the jurisdiction of the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

The letter, released last week, was intended as a show of growing commitment to the WHOA movement, as well as an attempt to prime the pump for more trainers to join the alliance. Owner and breeder Staci Hancock, speaking for WHOA, said that in the wake of the letter at least a half-dozen trainers have been added to the voices advocating for the legislation.

“The membership of WHOA is across the board, for anyone who has a stake in the game,” Hancock said. “But with some 75 trainers in the membership, we thought there was a critical mass to give them a chance to make a statement of support.”

Among the trainers who signed the letter were Hall of Famers Jonathan Sheppard, Neil Drysdale, Janet Elliot, and Roger Attfield; Breeders’ Cup winners Bruce Headley and Michael Dickinson; such international players as John Gosden and Ian Balding; and several well-known names now retired from the profession, including Criquette Head-Maarek, Jenine Sahadi, and John Ward.

These are people who know what it is like to work with racehorses every day, inspired by their strength while accommodating their frailties. They have decided that individual state-run testing and enforcement has become a crazy quilt of jurisdictional inconsistencies – no argument there – and that the elimination of race-day treatments (read “Lasix”) is a reasonable price to pay for a uniform set of medication practices that align with international standards.

The preponderance of the letter’s signatorees would not be readily identifiable outside their own racing regions. That should not matter, but it does. Among the missing are so many of North America’s leading trainers that there is no room here to list them all. Some harbor a deep libertarian streak that recoils at the thought of anything remotely resembling a U.S. government takeover, even though USADA is a private agency. But the vast majority of trainers unwilling to support the WHOA message are opposed to the effective elimination of Lasix as part of the legislation.

Graham Motion, alone among the nation’s top 25 trainers of 2017 to become a WHOA supporter, has come to terms with the idea of a legislated ban on raceday medication in service to what he sees as the higher cause of uniform rules administered by a national governing body. His name, however, was conspicuous by its absence from the recent WHOA letter.

“I admire these guys greatly for what they’re doing,” Motion said, in reference to the WHOA effort. “But I’m also not looking to take on my contemporaries who may not agree on all parts of the bill. I’m trying to be a little realistic about it, realizing how difficult it is to get some of these ideas past the horsemen. At some point, there’s got to be a compromise.”

Motion’s sentiments are echoed by Craig Bernick, president of Glen Hill Farm, who sympathizes with the WHOA movement but is not signed on.

“I don’t think either side has all the answers,” Bernick said this week. “But because I believe that 80 to 90 percent of the people in the business are reasonable, the only way forward is to compromise. And any compromise that had uniform rules with a commissioner or a committee in charge of deciding the rules and enforcing the rules – what ever the rules may be – I think would be way better than what we have today.”

Bernick gives voice to a growing opinion that the best parts of the Horse Racing Integrity Act are being weighted down by the ban on raceday medications. Even a WHOA supporter like Michael Dickinson suggests that there are bigger fish to fry.

“It is disappointing that the debates always revolve around Lasix when it is the vast amount of painkillers given the week of the race that are far more dangerous,” Dickinson wrote in his message of support for WHOA.

Bernick hopes his message of compromise can cut through the intransigent rhetoric.

“One-sided deals are usually not good for anybody,” Bernick said. “I think we need a compromise, major concessions on both sides. And that’s what usually makes deals – everybody goes home thinking they gave too much or got too little, but they still shook hands.”

And one of those concessions would be the removal of the raceday medication ban from the legislation.

“Yes,” Bernick said, “that seems like the magic button that would get the horsemen to agree.

“There are 20 things that need to get done in order to get the sport right,” he added, “but we’re just so prohibited because this is the issue that everybody wants to talk about, and they just scream louder and louder. It’s bad for business, and it’s a business I’m going to be in the rest of my life.”