04/17/2014 1:28PM

Jay Hovdey: Stronach has it right on medication rules


On the April 10 episode of “The Colbert Report,” host Stephen Colbert shared a report of a mental-health study in which test subjects found to have depression responded favorably to the drug ketamine, which, as noted, is also used as a tranquilizer for horses. At this, the studio audience laughed.

Colbert: It does make sense that you treat depression with a horse tranquilizer because every time I see a horse, I say, “Why the long face?”

(More laughter ... Colbert, pleased with his dumb joke, gestures to a head shot of a horse over his right shoulder and grows serious.)

Colbert: He’s on a suicide watch. Little men in silk pajamas get on his back and make him jump over sticks while whipping him.

(Audience laughter shifts quickly to a groan.)

Colbert: It’s sad.

I don’t mind Congress-critters using horse racing as a punching bag to score points with PETA. That is to be expected. But when the sport is turned into a laugh line on one of the most popular cable shows this side of “Duck Dynasty,” well, it’s just plain sad.

There is a public perception that things have gone terribly wrong with some aspects of Thoroughbred racing, and not just because little men and women, colorfully attired, make horses run in circles while whipping them.

Those who believe perception is reality are duly alarmed. At the same time, those who believe perceptions can be incorrect and can be modified to more closely conform to reality have their work cut out, especially because it is becoming increasingly apparent that nothing of a unified nature will be done from inside the game about the darkening perceptions of horse racing, even in the face of racing’s more palatable realities.

In the wake of the reaction to the undercover PETA video purporting to make a case that racehorses were being abused – while confirming the fact that men will say stupid things to try to impress women when they think no one is listening – any number of racing notables have stepped up to call for changes. Frank Stronach, pater familias of the Stronach Group of racetracks, was the latest to weigh in this week.

Stronach’s 10-point plan (it had to be 10, didn’t it?) for new Stronach Group house rules at tracks like Gulfstream, Santa Anita, and Pimlico includes some measures already in place in several jurisdictions (the prohibition of buzzers and prods, training and veterinary databases, out-of-competition testing) and others that always have made sense but have yet to be widely implemented (state-of-the-art equine ambulance and triage units, the banning of animal abusers).

Where the Stronach rules take a different turn is in their intense focus upon the practices and ingrained behaviors of backstretch veterinarians. As proposed, the new rules would set up a centralized dispensing pharmacy run by the racetrack. They call for close monitoring of all medications in the possession of vets and require documentation for their prescriptive use on horses. Veterinarian records would have to be available on demand, and vets would need to submit to random spot-checks of their mobile units and supplies.

The perception that racehorses are awash in drugs – therapeutic or otherwise – has become the umbrella issue confronting the sport. Never mind the hypocrisies of a human culture drowning in hydrocodone. Zero tolerance is the lazy, easy way out, impossible to enforce in a fair manner and guaranteed to drive the dishonest further underground. Still, something needs to be done to quiet the panic. If veterinarians must submit to additional layers of scrutiny to practice at a Stronach track, that’s a small price to pay for even the slightest improvement in the public’s perception of what goes into the animals and why.

“One thing inherent in our California license is that the CHRB has the right to inspect our trucks any time they want,” said Dr. Kurt Hofmann, whose clients include Hall of Famer Ron McAnally. “They don’t do that very often, but they certainly have the right to and are welcome to.”

Hofmann did not pretend to speak for anyone but himself. He pointed out that a centralized dispensing pharmacy might even be more convenient for his colleagues, as long as pricing was competitive with the many outside suppliers and the inventory was up to date.

“Veterinary teaching hospitals have centralized pharmacies, and it seems to work out fine for them,” Hofmann said.

It has become the nature of the beast that whenever an idea comes equipped with the name “Stronach” attached, the message becomes secondary to the messenger. Stronach has cut a swath wide and deep through the business of racing in a headstrong pursuit of goals that are sometimes difficult for the rest of the game to grasp.

In this case, with these Stronach Group house rules, Stronach is doing nothing more than following the lead of such racetrack operators as Jeff Gural, who lords over the Standardbred world at The Meadowlands in New Jersey, and Dr. Ed Allred, whose Quarter Horse empire is based at Los Alamitos in California’s suburban Orange County. Gural and Allred have been proactive in an attempt to keep their own houses in order through trainer ejections, security policies, and heightened testing procedures above and beyond what state racing commissions are either able or willing to do. This may not be the way toward a unified national approach, but at least it looks like the sport is trying to police itself, one backyard at a time.