04/17/2014 2:28PM

Jay Hovdey: Stronach has it right on medication rules

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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.

Gaye Goodwin 8 months ago
Perception? Perception? Jay...please! I really expect more from you. It's NOT about the bad language. Period. It's about an assistant trainer to on of the top "trainers" in the country vowing to fool the stewards in order to run a LAME horse. It's about the same assistant caught asking the jockey if he is sure he has the buzzer. It's about poor Nehro being trained to death with nubs for feet. WAKE UP!!!
Larry Hankins 8 months ago
It is unfortunate that the game of horse racing has fallen into a state of ridicule but as a horse player who has watched racing for over 30 years it is painfully obvious that the chemists are winning. I watched a race the other day where a horse (claimed by one of the chemists) was entered in a race at a distance where the horse was 0/25 lifetime. The horse won as a favorite by lengths. Tell me again that horse racing is honest.
Ray Sousa 8 months ago
Too little too late.and ho yes 0 credibility...funny how racing form writers always worry about the perception and not the reality.the reality is the game is corrupt and the perception is catching up to the reality. Maybe the puff pieces racing form has published defending the miscreants like Assmussen and the awards given to the miscreants over the years by the industry is the reason it has 0 credibility.i mean they were ready to induct this guy to the hall of fame just before the PETA video.even though he served a one year suspension for doping not that long ago.hows that for tone deaf.
Timurlenk Timurlenk 8 months ago
Too little...too late. Welcome Feds.
Starks43 8 months ago
Stop couching the issue with the head in sand "perception" bs. Read all the same bs from baseball pundits back in steroid era. These "perceptions" are reality and media has been largely complicit
Susan Kayne 8 months ago
I'd be interested to know why is Mr. Stronach allowing Jaroslav Gold a contracted kill buyer with a Canadian slaughter plant to run his horses at the Stronach Group owned Pimlico? See 'Runnin From Love' (MD) R1 April 18, 2014. Gold is contracted with the same slaughter plant that slaughtered Adena Springs bred 'Backstreet Bully'!
SteveT 8 months ago
And known cheaters Jane Cibelli, and Jorge Navarro train at Gulfstream. Go figure.
Pagani Zonda 8 months ago
US Racing can barely put a decent stakes field together. There are so many tracks with graded stakes that have huge purses, that you barely ever see the top handicap horses, or top older females race each other anymore. Unless it is the Breeders cup(Few other exceptions aside like Belmont day, or super race days that have multiple stakes offered. But how many times over the last 5 years have you had the top handicap horses or older females race prior to the BC?. In Europe you get the best vs the best early when the Royal Ascot meet starts, When Chantilly starts, When Glorious Goodwood starts, when Longchamps starts, The Back to Royal Ascot.....best vs the best. In the USA two days a year you get the BEST horses compete. That is Nov 4th- 5th. In Europe you will always see a showdown at any of these meets. No race day meds, a Heavily enforced Whip rule, and strict substance abuse testing on riders.
Pagani Zonda 8 months ago
Start by following the Brits. They established the British Horseracing Authority. They oversee all the British Tracks and enforce strict rules.
Ann 8 months ago
By emphasizing the BC as a championship day, the media sucked the lifeblood out of the rest of the year. And they were following the lead of industry publicity. When I came into this game, the whole year counted, and a horse who colicked in August and couldn't race thereafter, like Ack Ack, could still be Horse of the Year based on his earlier form. People recognized that a horse could be over the top at the end of the season or hit a track they hated and draw a line through that race. Not today - the racing media, nudged by the BC committee, push the BC races as the only races that COUNT for the various championships.The commentators even keep reciting the wholly empty suffix 'World Championships', for fear the committee will yank their credentials. And the irony is that Breeders' Cup has always been a restricted race of the most pernicious kind - one that excludes the horses bred by the more lowly breeder, one who can't afford to nominate every sire or foal on the off-chance that one of them becomes a major racehorse. John Henry couldn't run in the first BC - his sire wasn't even nominated; his people paid an enormous supplement in a later year, then he was hurt and couldn't start. This continues to be a problem, as evidenced by the case of top turf sprinter Ben's Cat, whose breeder/owner/trainer couldn't justify using the money his stable needs to survive to pay the supplemental fees for the BC.
Jon Turcotte 8 months ago
Your post is sooo spot on. I have said the same thing myself before. Racing has never been about one day or event, it's been about the totality of a horse's accomplishments in a given year. An injury which occurs after a lengthy and successful campaign, or a single bad effort due to circumstance should not discredit an entire year of fabulous performances. The Breeder's Cup is great, but it is not the be-all end all. It was designed to be a tie-breaker, not a deal-breaker for divisional honors. Great post my friend!
Suzanne Sugarbaker 8 months ago
One exception was 2009, when Rachel was finished racing that year after the Woodward on Sept. 5th, and was still voted HOY though she didn't compete in the BC. Zenyatta's victory in the Classic was decisive and brilliant, and yet was not deemed enough credential to be voted HOY over the winner of the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward that year. So in 2009 the whole year counted.
Lafe Bassett 9 months ago
Should be considered a purging of the past, the start of a new day and new lifestyle. That way you give the vet a way out from past misfeaseances! Now it is a risk to the new environment, to their licenses, to their livelyhood!
Jay Stone 9 months ago
At least Mr. Stronach is trying. If he follows Mr. Gural's moves it will be a good start. All his points are workable and will help make changes that work. The price of the drugs is not a problem as every vet knows the markup is large. The real problem is enforcement which needs the bite of the federal agencies.
Walter 9 months ago
Yep, I don think they are cresting a central pharmacy to price gouge. Stronach is trying to clean up he sport from many unscrupulous folks. A great first step. Thanks Frank
tim blake 8 months ago
c'mon, at least say something that sounds believable.
Bob 9 months ago
As usual Hovdey's article is a rambling and somewhat disjointed dissertation that seemingly dances around the core issue, so let's set the record straight for those who prefer a more direct and to the point approach to the editorial process: I will be the first to admit that I have long been a critic of Frank Stronach and almost everything he has done since he emerged on the thoroughbred racing scene. But with that being said, I applaud what he is doing in the wake of the recently released PETA video...a video which by the way, isn't "purporting to make a case that racehorses were being abused...." It is pretty darned clear from the video that abuse is taking place! And it's even more clear that it was taking place in the barn of one THE most prominent training operations in the country! It is also clear that racing officials aren't doing enough to prevent the kind of abuse that is clearly tasking place and as such it is left to people like Frank Stronach to step up and take unilateral action! Hopefully Stronach's actions will get the attention of trainers, owners, vets, jockeys and other track operators. Considering the number of high profile racing operations that Magna controls his 10 point plan could have a lasting impact on the long overdue reforms that the racing industry needs to survive!
tim blake 8 months ago
I agree that it's a good start and certainly better than the status quo.