08/10/2014 3:04PM

Jockey Club pushes for reforms at Round Table


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The Jockey Club did not back away from a threat to press for federal regulation of the sport in light of what it believes to be inadequate progress in addressing medication use in racing, with the organization’s top official saying at Sunday’s Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing in Saratoga Springs that the Jockey Club’s board has approved a “multi-pronged effort” that includes a push for federal legislation and a renewed attack on the race-day use of furosemide.

Addressing the crowd as the final speaker at the two-hour Round Table, Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, the chairman of the Jockey Club, said the effort approved by the board during a meeting Saturday also called for the organization to “investigate a relationship” with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a private company that conducts drug testing of Olympic athletes. The relationship envisions, in its most radical form, the USADA conducting all of the sport’s drug-testing and research, supplanting myriad laboratories that have conducted testing on behalf of state racing commissions for, in some cases, decades.

In addition, the Jockey Club will continue to work on the individual state level to press for adoption of a set of uniform rules supported by the organization, Phipps said, especially in states where progress has been hard to come by, such as Florida, where legislators have failed to take up the rules despite the unanimous backing of the state’s racing constituents. And even though those uniform rules do not include a controversial ban on the race-day use of the anti-bleeding medication furosemide, also known as Lasix, the Jockey Club will continue to push for the ban, despite opposition from horsemen’s groups across the country.

One year ago, Phipps vowed at the 2013 Round Table that the Jockey Club would press for federal oversight of racing if the “vast majority” of racing jurisdictions had not implemented the set of uniform rules. Though a handful of states have made progress in implementing the rules and complying with other Jockey Club-supported requirements, such as working with accredited testing laboratories, Phipps and Stuart Janney, a Jockey Club vice chairman, made it clear during the Round Table the organization believed progress over the past 12 months fell well short of their expectations, despite the highly complex nature of getting the rules implemented in many states.

“At the end of the day, it’s clear that we need to do more,” Phipps said.

The Jockey Club believes the sport’s policies on race-day furosemide, medication use, and drug testing are at the root of the sport’s waning popularity. Its polling suggests that medication reform will draw more customers to the sport and give existing customers more confidence in the game.

The strategy to pursue federal legislation is a non-starter in many quarters of the racing industry, and earlier this week, lobbyists who work for the racing industry acknowledged it was highly unlikely federal lawmakers would support any bill granting the government oversight of the sport without sea changes in the makeup of the legislature and the unanimous backing of the racing industry. Over the past four years, three bills have been introduced by legislators advancing federal oversight and a race-day Lasix ban, yet none has ever come up for a vote at any level of government. The introduction of the legislation has come after some racing individuals supporting the Jockey Club's policies lobbied for the bills. 

Racetracks are especially fearful of federal legislation, under the concern that the bill would jeopardize the industry’s exemption on betting across state lines, the foundation of simulcast betting, which provides 90 percent of the racing's revenues. All versions of the federal-oversight bill have been tied to legislation passed in the 1970s that grants the exemption, the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978, by giving the government the ability to deny simulcasting rights to states and tracks that fail to comply with the requirements in the bill.

Racetracks and other racing organizations also fear that special-interest groups hostile to racing could work more easily with the federal government to advance their agendas if a federal law laid out compliance requirements that might be difficult to implement or contain unexpected loopholes. Combined, those two concerns could lead a large number of racing companies and racing-related organizations to Washington, D.C., to oppose any bill.

While not providing any specifics, Phipps acknowledged that federal oversight could have “unintended consequences” during his remarks.

“We also appreciate the perspective of those who firmly believe the pursuit of federal legislation … may open a Pandora’s Box, and it may be jeopardizing the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978, which is so vital to the economic health of our industry,” said Phipps. “But we still think this is the correct route to take.”

Furosemide, a diuretic, has been legal to use on race day in every North American racing jurisdiction for nearly 20 years. Supporters point to scientific studies that indicate the drug is useful in mitigating the severity and frequency of bleeding in the lungs, while opponents contend that race-day use of any drug, even one that has therapeutic purposes, is a blatant sore on racing’s image. Opponents, many of whom are breeders, a main constituency of the Jockey Club, also contend use of the drug dampens demand for U.S. bloodstock in foreign jurisdictions, where race-day use is largely banned.

The Jockey Club has supported efforts to ban the drug in the U.S. over the past three years. Other organizations, such as the Breeders’ Cup and the American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, also have put in place policies designed to curtail race-day use in the past three years, but those policies were rescinded in the wake of a lack of widespread industry support.

Horsemen’s groups that support both the uniform medication rules and the ongoing race-day use of furosemide have pointed to those failures to argue that the anti-Lasix faction needs to put its advocacy on a side burner, at least until the industry has pressed further on the state-by-state adoption of the uniform rules.

The Jockey Club will need widespread support for at least one of its proposals. During his remarks, Phipps suggested that racing could dramatically improve its drug-testing capabilities and its drug-testing research by giving those responsibilities to the USADA and paying for the work through a 2 percent purse deduction. That would mean that trainers and owners would shoulder the burden for funding the reform efforts through reduced purses, which in the U.S., are heavily subsidized by revenues from casinos. To do so, horsemen’s groups would presumably have to agree to a mandatory reduction through their individual agreements with racetracks, which are already the subject of intense negotiation in many instances.

Trainers and owners steadfastly resist reductions in purses for obvious reasons. In fact, in two states, Kentucky and California, horsemen’s groups have recently supported increases in the takeout – the amount of money withheld from payouts to bettors – to fund purse increases, despite outcries from horseplayers and the patently obvious decline in betting handle on the sport’s races over the past 10 years.

Phipps said the industry’s stakeholders should be prepared to sacrifice for the benefit of the sport’s future.

“As we leave here today, we shouldn’t be asking ourselves if we can afford to build such a program,” he said. “We should be asking ourselves if we can afford not to.”