08/17/2008 11:00PM

Jockey Club to examine drug testing


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The racing industry is preparing to conduct a comprehensive examination of its drug-testing structure in an attempt to address longstanding criticisms of the way the sport identifies and tests for illegal medications, officials of the Jockey Club said Sunday at the organization's Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing.

Critics of racing's current drug-testing system have long argued that the sport needs to consolidate its drug-testing services to make better use of resources and properly fund research into testing for next-generation drugs. Overhauling that structure has been difficult, however, because of financial and logistical problems.

At the round table, Jockey Club officials said that the organization would fund the development of a business plan envisioning a consolidated structure, although details on the exact purpose of the business plan have not been clearly defined. It was clear, however, that many high-ranking officials believe that the sport needs to seriously consider an overhaul of the system in order to address stubborn perception problems about racing's drug policies and its current gaps in testing and research.

"The first step is that we have to acknowledge that we have a problem," said Alan Foreman, chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, during a presentation at the two-hour conference.

Prerace and post-race drug testing of racehorses is currently conducted by 18 different laboratories in the United States that contract with the sport's 38 racing jurisdictions, at a cost of $30 million annually, according to racing officials. Critics of the structure contend that the use of so many laboratories results in duplicative spending and inconsistent testing standards. In addition, the selection of the laboratories through low-bid contracts often pressures the facilities to cut costs and corners in order to protect their slim profit margins, according to critics.

The alternative, racing officials said at the round table, is the creation of a national testing laboratory that would conduct all of the sport's drug testing and research, using standards developed by independent scientists. Under that system, racing also would need a second laboratory to conduct confirmation tests on samples that have already tested positive for an illegal medication.

But the hurdles in front of that effort are significant. The racing industry has been economically stagnant for a decade, many racetracks are struggling, state budgets have entered the cost-cutting cycle that inevitably follows strong economic growth, and many existing laboratories have significant political ties to the commissions that employ them. As a result, convincing states and racetracks to foot the bill for a national laboratory - while diverting those funds from the existing laboratories - will be extremely difficult, officials said.

"We're challenged by our decentralized regulatory structure, but we cannot let that be our excuse to fail," said Stuart Janney III, a Jockey Club member who moderated the second half of the round table program as the chairman of the organization's Thoroughbred Safety Committee.

Barring the creation of a national lab, the racing industry should require that all existing laboratories conform to testing standards developed by independent experts, the officials said. In the 1980s and 1990s, many racing laboratories belonged to two competing quality-assurance programs, but those programs dissolved during the last decade under funding and structural pressures, and racing officials now say that the time has come to develop new standards.

The round table's focus on the effectiveness of the racing industry's drug-testing structure was a result, in part, of the widespread criticism of the sport in the wake of the fatal breakdown of the filly Eight Belles shortly after she finished second in this year's Kentucky Derby. The death galvanized critics of racing to question the sport's medication policies, leading to a congressional hearing in July examining drugs in racing and their association with catastrophic breakdowns.

Five days after the Derby, the Jockey Club formed the Thoroughbred Safety Committee, and in July, just prior to the congressional hearing, the committee recommended that states and racetracks immediately adopt bans on toe-grab horseshoes and rules regulating the administration of anabolic steroids. The recommendations did not break any new ground, as many states were already in the process of considering anabolic-steroid regulations and toe-grab bans, but the committee's stamp of approval on the efforts was viewed as providing momentum to the existing initiatives.

On Sunday, the committee released a new set of recommendations, and most of those were related to the sport's drug-testing structure. In addition to funding the development of the business plan and endorsing a new set of national standards for racing labs, the committee recommended the adoption by racing commissions of a uniform request-for-proposals to evaluate the services that would be provided by labs under their contracts with states, as well as the creation of a national facility that would be used to freeze post-race samples. Many other sports freeze samples in order to provide a deterrent against the use of sophisticated designer drugs that are not capable of being detected with current technology.

Apart from the discussion of racing's drug-testing capabilities, several round table speakers presented the results of studies conducted over the past several months that challenged many widely circulated criticisms of the racing industry.

Matt Iuliano, vice president of registration services for the Jockey Club, challenged claims that the racing industry is increasingly breeding more fragile horses. He presented the results of a pedigree research study conducted by the Jockey Club that appeared to show that no one sire line is responsible for the production of horses with a higher degree of unsoundness.

The data also did not point to any increase in unsoundness in the breed over the past several decades, Iuliano said, despite common contentions that the alleged fragility of the Thoroughbred is the primary factor behind the a decline in average field size from 11.3 horses in 1960 to only 6.3 horses in 2007.

Later in the program, Dr. Larry Bramlage, the co-owner of Rood and Riddle Equine Clinic and a member of the safety committee, presented data challenging the oft-repeated claim that 2-year-old racing contributes to racing unsoundness or catastrophic injuries. The data indicated that horses that compete as juveniles race more often and average more starts over their careers than horses that do not race until their 3-year-old years, Bramlage said.