Updated on 09/15/2011 12:51PM

NTRA drug study to top Round Table


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - On Sunday, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association will release the results of a long-awaited study into drug-testing procedures and illegal medications. It will be an important moment, not only because the issue has sharply divided the industry, but also because the NTRA has yet to prove its leadership in controversial areas.

The report, prepared by a task force founded two years ago and headed by former New York racing regulator Jim Gallagher, will gather the results of an analysis of more than 1,200 post-race urine samples collected at racetracks around the country, including the identification of the most commonly detected illegal substances. The report will also recommend how regulators should properly police the sport and punish cheaters.

Beyond the findings, however, the release of the report will place the NTRA squarely at the center of one of the most controversial debates in racing, a strategy that has led to some notable failures for the NTRA in the past. In perhaps the most dramatic example, the NTRA abandoned its operation of a telephone-wagering hub in Oregon that took bets for Television Games Network early in 2000 after fielding complaints from members for two years. In fact, some members resigned from the NTRA this year because of the association's ongoing relationship with TVG.

NTRA officials have said that the report will not side with either supporters or critics of drug testing and medication. Still, a member of the task force said, both sides of the debate can be expected to use the report to gather support for its arguments, which could lead to more confrontation among NTRA's members.

"The report speaks for itself," said Alan Foreman, an NTRA board member and member of the task force, on Friday. "It's a comprehensive examination of drug testing in the U.S. at the present time. But people are always going to draw conclusions. That's the nature of the beast. I have my opinion, but I know it's possible for another person to have a completely different opinion. There will be people who will use the report to fit into their agenda, and we have to be aware of that."

The NTRA is using Sunday's Round Table Conference in Saratoga Springs to make the report public. As anticipated, the critics and supporters of racing's drug policies are already lining up to predict that the report will confirm their positions.

"I have a feeling we're going to find that things are not as bad as we have been led to believe," said Kent Stirling, the executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "The positive rate is going to be very minute. We couldn't be happier."

Other officials who have seen the report, however, said that one of its most critical findings is the detection of synthetic drugs in several samples.

"There were some things they found that had absolutely no business being in a racehorse," one official said. "Synthetics and designer drugs. Things that aren't even legal for humans to have in them."

Whether the report will put to rest the simmering debate remains to be seen. On one side are many horsemen and racing officials who believe that allegations of widespread use of drugs in racing are manufactured by a crusading press and encouraged by overzealous regulators eager to call positives. On the other side are the critics, who maintain that cheating remains the sport's most pressing problem.

The task force has been controversial since its inception. Just after the group was founded, several horsemen's groups, including those in Kentucky and Florida, raised objections to the NTRA's entering the drug debate, calling the issue outside the organization's reach. The NTRA tried to silence its critics by vowing that the task force would not address state rules regarding drug use.

The task force was formed at a time when there was more concern about the use of illegal drugs than current issues surrounding the establishment of threshold levels and uniform drug-testing rules. The new concerns have been fueled by recent high-profile positives called on horses in the barns of leading trainers Bob Baffert and Nick Zito. Baffert and Zito have said that their horses were the victims of accidental contamination and that the levels of drugs in the horses' systems could not possibly have played a role in their performances, a position that has been supported by some of racing's harshest medication critics.

NTRA officials are concerned that if the report's data is used to validate a particular line of thinking, it could dry up support for the report's recommendations. For example, if the report appeared to indicate that drug abuse is not widespread, cheerleading by the NTRA could backfire because many racing fans and critics expect the sport to be 100 percent clean. If the report cites excessive drug use, the association risks alienating horsemen by pointing an accusing finger.

Foreman said that he is hopeful the industry will view the report objectively.

"We've done our job," Foreman said. "Now we have to avoid letting people get up on a soapbox and start demanding things. The next step is to get the suggestions implemented, and not let this report get stuck on a shelf to gather dust like so many other things we've done."