11/27/2015 11:22AM

Simon: Out-of-competition testing would eliminate need for federal bill

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Federal intervention is not needed to fix the problem of illicit drugs in Thoroughbred racing. It can be resolved in a matter of weeks if certain leaders really want to address the problem.

The solution would not require the passage of the Barr-Tonko bill, a federal bill that would set up a separate entity to oversee drug testing in racing nationally and establish uniform medication guidelines. It would not require amending the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978, which gives racetracks the right to simulcast signals across state lines, to ensure that the federal rules were adopted. It would not even require horsemen to sign off on the solution, though their participation would be preferred.

All that is needed is for racetracks to add language to their stabling and entry forms that gives the track permission to test any and all horses whenever and wherever they want to ensure the horses are racing clean if they want to race at that track. Out-of-competition testing is the method most major sports and international sports, like the Olympics, use to ensure their athletes are performing without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs. Racetracks should take the lead on this issue, says Jeff Gural, the owner of the Meadowlands in New Jersey, because the chances of getting a bill through Congress to set up tough drug testing are remote.

“We have a sham drug-testing program,” Gural said at a gathering for the Stan Bergstein Award ceremony in Lexington, Ky., several weeks ago. “What we basically do is tell the trainer when exactly we will test, which is either right before or right after the race, and exactly within a few minutes when they would be taking that blood test, and tell them what they are testing for. So, how are you supposed to catch anyone, knowing no one in their right mind would give an illegal substance to a horse when they know they would be caught? And that is essentially what we’re doing. They know what we’re testing for and when, and they can use drugs we’re not testing for.”

Gural has implemented out-of-competition testing at the Meadowlands – at his expense – to keep its racing clean. Gural has thrown trainers off the grounds whom he suspects of cheating or have been found guilty of cheating, using the right of a private property owner as the reason he can exclude certain individuals.

“I didn’t spend $120 million to create a place for dishonest people to make a living,” Gural said of the new Meadowlands.

Gural, who owns a few Thoroughbreds, said he doesn’t know much about Thoroughbred racing, but he does know all the players in racing, and in track management, and he names the organizations that should be taking the lead in cleaning up the sport.

“In my mind, the solution is very simple,” he said. “And that is for the track owners to step up to the plate and finally do the right thing – something they should have done years ago. They have to say enough is enough. We have a moral obligation to our customers and to the horses that when they step foot on the racetrack, they are not racing with any medication. It’s as simple as that.

“If you don’t care enough to concern yourself with putting out a great product that the racing public can bet on and watch, you should do something else with your life. We’re going to say we’re not going to wait for the government to do it, we’re going to do it.

“Churchill can do it; Keeneland can do it; NYRA can do it,” he said, later adding The Stronach Group and Del Mar to the five entities that can implement such a policy. “Basically, you say that if you want to race here, you have to sign this stable application that says we have the right at any time we want to call you up to tell you that we are here and we want you to send your veterinarian over to take blood.”

In a recent survey conducted by Daily Racing Form, respondents said that illicit drugs are the No. 1 problem facing racing today – above such issues as race-day Lasix use, takeout rates, uniform medication rules, field size, and facility conditions.

“Without out-of-competition testing, you’re not testing at all,” Gural said.

When Gural started the program at the Meadowlands, he went to Hong Kong because it has the best test laboratories in the world. One of the first findings from the Hong Kong lab was that some of the Meadowlands horses were racing on cobalt, an illegal substance that is supposed to increase red blood cell counts. It is not tested for in some major racing jurisdictions, such as New York. When the test results came back positive, Gural banned the offending trainers from racing their horses at the Meadowlands.

There are issues of due process when actions like Gural suggests are implemented, and those do not go away, but tracks have the right to deny access to their grounds, though it is not used extensively. It was invoked by Tampa Bay Downs in 2006 when the track barred seven jockeys from riding there because of suspicions of race fixing.

If a racetrack bars a trainer or jockey from competing at its track under the scenario that Gural outlines, the individual could sue the track for being denied the right to make a living, but that right was not upheld by a court in the Tampa situation because it is private property, plus there are other tracks in operation, and the individual can go to another track or to another state to make a living.

Trainers are the most affected party by the practices suggested by Gural, and the sport needs their participation to help prevent illicit drugs from being used by unscrupulous and dishonest individuals.

As for track owners, they may be hesitant to incur the costs associated with out-of-competition testing – Gural puts his cost at $150,000 a year – but all the stakeholders – owners, trainers, racing regulators, and tracks – can help bear the costs. In the federal bill being discussed, the cost of the drug testing would be borne by the sport – it is written in the bill that the expense specifically would not come from the federal government or from takeout – so under any scenario, the solution to the problem must come from within.

When the integrity of the game is on the line, no cost should be considered too great to ensure that the game is played fairly by the horses for the bettors.