04/27/2012 3:23PM

Hovdey: Stevens takes zero-tolerance stance on race-day medication

Barbara D. Livingston
Retired jockey Gary Stevens will testify about horse racing safety before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Health on Monday.

Among the many things a jockey might consider as an activity in retirement, testifying before a Congressional committee is well down the list. Golf, yes. Mountain climbing, maybe. Sitting at the witness table under oath, not hardly.

But that is exactly what Hall of Fame rider and NBC Sports broadcaster Gary Stevens will be doing Monday in Pennsylvania, where the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Health will convene at Unionville High School in Kennett Square for a hearing on the subject of “A Review of Efforts to Protect the Health of Jockeys and Horses in Horseracing.”

Stevens will be joined on the first of two witness panels by owners and breeders Arthur Hancock and Gretchen Jackson – who between them have won Kentucky Derbies with Gato del Sol, Sunday Silence, and Barbaro – as well as George Strawbridge, who has raced champions on the flat and over jumps. Hancock, Jackson, and Strawbridge all have been outspoken proponents of national standards that would include tougher enforcement of racing’s drug rules and the elimination of race-day medications with federal supervision if that’s what it takes. But while their voices have become familiar in the debate, Stevens will be relatively new to the role of trying to shape public opinion.

Stevens earned the right to speak on behalf of jockeys with a career that spanned 26 years, with time off only to deal with injuries. He won 4,888 races – three of them Kentucky Derbies and eight in a variety of Breeders’ Cups – along with an Eclipse Award and induction into the Hall of Fame at the age of 34, in 1997. In addition to his work with NBC and its upcoming coverage of the Derby and Triple Crown, Stevens is an analyst with the Santa Anita-based HRTV racing network and a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild who made his debut at George Woolf in the Academy Award nominated “Seabiscuit.”

I had the pleasure of writing a few lines for the character played by Stevens in the HBO series “Luck,” but he’ll be on his own Monday in front of Health Committee Chairman Joe Pitts and his Congressional cohorts, politicians all, with agendas that may or may not be in tune with the message Stevens wants to deliver. If words fail him, Stevens can always roll up a pant leg to reveal one of his ravaged knees or flash a shoulder so the crowd can ooh and ahh at the scars.

“I did whatever I had to do to show up, whether is was injections in my knees or whatever,” Stevens said. “My career ended much earlier than it should have had I given myself the proper amount of time to heal up every time I was hurt. I didn’t know how bad I was hurting myself sometimes, and racehorses for damn sure don’t know. I would still be riding today, and a lot of good horses would still be running today, if medications weren’t used the way they are.”

Stevens will be testifying in a climate heated on one side by the recent New York Times article headlined “Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys” and on the other by the beginning of Kentucky Derby week, when racing gets the high-beam treatment from the world’s sporting press.

“Whether we like it or not, everything about racing is perception, and we are perceived right now as a bloodthirsty sport where people die and horses die, and we don’t care,” Stevens said.

“We are not a bloodthirsty sport,” he continued. “And we do care very much. But time is running out. I see the writing on the wall, and it’s not very encouraging. Until we do what every other racing jurisdiction in the world has done, we’re in real trouble – and that’s zero tolerance when it comes to medication.”

By that, Stevens will testify, he means eliminating the use of medication as a means to maintain Thoroughbreds as active racing assets. He’s spent enough time in the trenches – including brief stints as a trainer and assistant trainer – to know that horses need modern veterinary attention to go along with down-time and tender loving care if they are going to be viable in competition. But the line, he notes, between husbandry and abuse has been tragically crossed.

“I’ll hear it said, especially in California, that if you go without race-day medication you’ll only be able to race two days a week,” Stevens said. “But with the number of horses available right now, that’s how many days you should be racing, with quality racing both days.”

As a former president of the Jockeys’ Guild, Stevens is dismayed that the current guild leadership has not stepped up in support of a hard-line on race-day medication.

“Nick Jemas and John Giovanni would roll over in their graves,” Stevens said, citing long-serving guild executive directors of bygone days. “When I was coming up as a rider and later served in the guild, it was consistently our position to oppose horses racing on anything that would hide their true physical condition.”

Terry Meyocks, current Jockeys’ Guild executive director, said his organization stands by its support of the guidelines proposed by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium of industry stakeholders, including the guild.

“Those guidelines call for a nationwide policy of reduced Bute levels, elimination of adjunct medications, and official supervision of race-day Lasix administration, which I think are all in the best interests of riders and horses.” Meyocks said. “The guild was not asked, at least that I know of, to send a representative to the committee hearing.”

Which leaves Stevens the lone voice, at least on Monday, among the athletes whose well being is most directly affected by the health of the racehorse. Like most jockeys who spend their professional lives out on a limb, he is braced for blowback.

“I’m probably digging my own grave with a lot of people in the business,” Stevens said. “But I think it’s time for the federal government to protect racing from itself.”