03/10/2016 12:43PM

NYRA joins push for USADA oversight


The board of the New York Racing Association on Thursday approved a resolution to support federal legislation that would appoint a private, nonprofit company as the overseer of the sport’s medication policies, becoming the second major Thoroughbred racetrack operator to endorse the controversial bill.

The board endorsed the legislation by voice vote on the recommendation of NYRA chief executive Chris Kay and the board’s chairman, Michael Del Guidice, after a brief presentation outlining some aspects of the bill at the opening of a regularly scheduled board meeting Thursday. During discussion of the bill, Del Guidice said that officials of The Jockey Club, which has led an effort to gain support for the bill for the past year, were on the phone if board members had specific questions about the legislation.

NYRA, which operates Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga under a lease from the state, is the most prominent racetrack operator to join the effort to support the legislation, which is opposed by most racetracks, horsemen’s groups, and state racing commissions. Last year, the Keeneland Association, which runs two prestigious three-week race meets and conducts North America’s largest Thoroughbred auctions, also endorsed the legislation. Several harness tracks and other minor tracks have announced support for the bill.

The bill, which was introduced last year but has not been scheduled for a hearing, would give the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency the power to determine the sport’s medication rules and devise a drug-testing program. Racing lobbyists have said the bill has little to no chance to pass this year, in large part because Congress has not demonstrated a willingness to consider the bill without nearly unanimous support from the racing industry.

Rick Violette, the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and a non-voting member of the NYRA board, criticized the legislation during the Thursday board meeting by reiterating his organization’s opposition to the federal effort. Speaking by phone, Violette said the effort to gain support for the bill has weakened an ongoing effort within the racing industry to align states under one set of medication rules.

The state-by-state reform effort is favored by most horsemen’s groups that continue to contend that the federal effort is also designed to push through rules prohibiting the administration of the anti-bleeding medication furosemide on race day, which is legal throughout North America but banned in most foreign racing jurisdictions.

“This is a significant waste of energy and money,” Violette told the board.

Len Riggio, a board member, said prior to the vote to approve the resolution that he believed the board did not “have a choice” but to support the bill. But he also said that because the bill has little chance to gain federal legislative support, the effort to transfer regulatory authority from racing states to a national overseer “is like swatting butterflies.”

“The federal government has other priorities than to get involved in horse racing,” Riggio said. On a live stream of the meeting on the Internet, it was unclear whether Riggio was one of the members who voiced support for the resolution. Del Guidice did not call for a head count after the voice vote was taken.

Another board member, Marc Holliday, questioned whether the endorsement would detract from NYRA’s efforts to be an “industry leader” in local regulation of medication and drug-testing. Holliday attached a provision to the resolution endorsing the bill just before the voice vote was called that stated the support would come “at no significant cost to NYRA.”

Supporters contend the legislation would quickly address structural deficiencies in the regulation of racing by subjecting all racetracks and horsemen in the U.S. to one set of national medication rules. To enforce the provisions of the bill, racetracks would lose their rights to accept bets on simulcast races if the programs devised by USADA were not enforced by state racing commissions, a provision that many racetracks have said they cannot accept because of the potential for catastrophic business losses if horsemen’s groups and USADA clash over medication policies.

The Jockey Club has built a formidable coalition of support for the bill from among many organizations linked to the breeding of racehorses, a group that has often expressed its discontent with medication rules and enforcement of drug-testing policies over the past decade, along with a distaste for the widespread use of furosemide on race day. Groups that have joined the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, the lobbying group created by The Jockey Club to market the bill, include Breeders’ Cup Ltd., the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, the Humane Society of the U.S., and the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance. Many of the organizations that have joined the coalition share membership rosters.

Even among some supporters, however, there are reservations about the current bill. The board of TOBA, for example, endorsed the effort late last year, but several members of the board have since said that support for the bill was predicated on a rewriting of the legislation that would establish benchmarks to evaluate USADA’s performance and provide options to consider other companies for the national regulatory role. Though the current bill requires a board controlled by USADA to report to Congress every four years, it does not contain language that would require assessments of USADA's performance or establish an expiration date for USADA's role as the national overseer.

The bill was referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee last July, shortly after being introduced by U.S. Reps. Andy Barr (R.-Ky.) and Paul Tonko (D.-N.Y.). Several weeks ago, the two representatives wrote a letter to the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance soliciting additional support for the bill while acknowledging that the legislation has not yet drawn attention from committee members responsible for scheduling bills for consideration.