04/27/2012 4:23PM

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.”

frank hoch More than 1 year ago
Unfortunately the federal gov't can't take care of their own business. Racing needs to appoint or elect a national CZAR whos decisions are final and binding. This person must be someone that has the same character as a supreme cout justice and needs to rotate on a four year basis, just like the president.
JoJo Zumwalt More than 1 year ago
Only answer is to have a National Commission for Horse Racing which is not under the purview of the Federal Government. This industry needs this wake up call, and it is not business as usual anymore. I want to see all tracks that operate in the US brought under ONE roof,with a National Commission for oversight for all owers; trainers and anyone that has hands on horses and employ jockeys else to be held accountable. Horse and jockeys should be protected at all costs!! This is a national disgrace; and an embarrassment all over the world. There's a new day coming.
dave block More than 1 year ago
ok. so here's my 20 cents. like anyone cares. i think its great that members of the thoroughbred industry are going to congress to request uniform medication rules. it would be great if every state abided by the same rules. personally i'd be in favor of 'drug-free racing', with the exception of lasix. when you race horses some are going to bleed. lasix is a proven to prevent bleeding. if you are in favor of horse welfare then you should be in favor of lasix
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
So Dave, Which barn would YOU take Your "Scrawny" to...
mikey More than 1 year ago
nonsense...the Germans has basically weeded out their bad bleeders by breeding them out of their stock.....
dave block More than 1 year ago
please explain what this has to do with gary stevens going to congress
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Let me paint a picture here. You, out there, Mr or Mz Horselover have just won THE lottery of them all. You have just become the proud owner of a beautiful Colt. He is by "The Best" out of "The Best" and is perfect... Bad hairdo, gangly legs, knobby knees, scrawny all over but his eyes! His eyes are bright, wide-set and looking, looking, taking in the big new world around him. He's halter-broke and marches like a little soldier, happy with his muzzle just brushing your arm now and then as you walk him. His Papers are now in your name and along with him comes a lifetime of free Training. Down the lane are two barns. In one barn reside the horses of a Trainer who wins his share and jumps up every once in awhile to perhaps win both "Classics" at the Breeders Cup. His horses stay with us longer. In the other barn is a guy who "winds 'em and grinds 'em. Loses some along the way but seems to win alot. His owners don't seem to notice. That champagne keeps on flowin'. So now new Owner. Where do you take little "Scrawny'?
Dennis Geier More than 1 year ago
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Lotta anger there boy... You a horse man?
mikey More than 1 year ago
And you? are you a horse man/trainer/owner who keeps buying this gawdawful bleeders?
mikey More than 1 year ago
Is that beautiful colt came from bleeders...NO THANKS....you can keep him...or her....
Rhett Fincher More than 1 year ago
I agree that Gary has said some ignorant things but I think what he is testifying to will be good for racing. I'm not thrilled with the govt involved in racing but nothing else seems to be an option
Thomas Koski More than 1 year ago
The incompetent Lords of racing have created this mess and practically destroyed the sport. The only way to further tangle this abomination and to speed up the overall elimination of racing would be to involve the federal government.
st More than 1 year ago
so the federal government that can't agree on anything on either side will come together to eliminate horse racing? i think horse racing people need to quit thinking there is a vast conspiracy for the elimination of horse racing. It makes for good fodder to debate but in the end horse racing will keep going on as along the laws of supply and demand dictate it goes on
William Hawk More than 1 year ago
GO GARY! While you're at it, stop the betting 2 minutes before post time. let's get horse racing on the level. Plus, lifetime bans for people willingly defrauding the betting public for using buzzers; fixing races etc.
Junior Jimenez More than 1 year ago
The government involving itself in racing. Really Gary. Time to run for office pal. And guess what you wouldn't get my vote. Gary has always been a guy who reacts first and thinks later. Now he wants to blame the end of his career on the injections he took to feel better. Gary graduated from what medical school? Like I said earlier he once said that horses were stupid. Now all of sudden he gets so self righteous to now want the government to get involved and stop this. What about the slaughtering of innocent horses. When Gary rode did he once say I won't ride a horse cause they being injected with drugs or on lasix. Never once did he say anything. How come so few people have come forward to testify along with Gary.
Junior Jimenez More than 1 year ago
I don't remember Gary having a medical degree. Nothing but bs from Gary. This is the same guy who once said on HRTV that most horses are stupid. Yeah Gary. Stuff it
mikey More than 1 year ago
no he meant most bettors are stupid!! and that is true....