Updated on 09/17/2011 10:57AM

Stakes committee takes on drug use

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - In the view of many people involved with Thoroughbred racing, the use of prohibited drugs is out of control and the problem is steadily getting worse. The industry's innumerable organizations and regulators haven't done anything to stop the abuse. But now a relatively obscure committee has taken action that could affect the entire sport.

Horse racing has not been able to deal with the issue that is corroding its integrity because no entity has both the will and the authority to impose rules on the whole industry. Individual racetracks are often reluctant to crack down on suspected cheaters because they are often the high-profile trainers whose horses fill their races.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association tries to form an industry-wide consensus on issues, but it can't achieve a consensus on drugs when so many veterinarians and horsemen's organizations resist limitations on the use of medications. Besides, the NTRA couldn't set national standards even if all the factions agreed to them; drug regulations are mostly written by the various state racing commissions.

Since the industry's approach to the drug problem has consisted mostly of talk and no action, suspicions about drugs keep growing. At tracks from coast to coast, trainers suddenly become miracle-workers, improving horses dramatically and winning at rates that the greatest horsemen of all time never approached. The "miracles" are just as likely to occur in Grade 1 stakes as in claiming races.

Just as horseplayers speculate constantly about the use of drugs, many horse owners fret about this issue, too. Dan Metzger, president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, said, "Everybody has been talking about medication and testing issues, and the pressure has been on from our constituents to try to do something about it."

Steve Duncker, a member of TOBA's board of trustees from New York, has been struck by the intensity of the feelings. "When you go to a board meeting," he said, "you hear passion about doing something about the drug situation. People who have been in the game for a long, long time are considering getting out."

Duncker understood the reason that racing hasn't been able to address the drug issue effectively: "Nobody has a stick."

That is, no one on the national level has the authority to demand or even prod changes in drug enforcement. But Duncker found such a stick.

He is the chairman of TOBA's Graded Stakes Committee - a body that is surely unknown to anyone without a hard-core interest in racing. As thousands of horses are sold at auction each year, their catalogue pages list the stakes that they or their relatives have won. A would-be buyer who sees that a horse won the River City Handicap would probably not know whether that was a significant stakes or an inconsequential race at a minor league track. So the major racing nations all classify their best stakes as Grade 1, Grade 2, or Grade 3. (The River City is a Grade 3 stakes at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.) A race's grade reflects its prestige and influences owners' and trainers' decisions about where to run their horses, for a Grade 1 victory will significantly boost a thoroughbred's value.

TOBA's committee annually reviews and assigns the grading of all U.S. stakes, and its decisions often generate a lot of controversy; racetracks take this process seriously and get upset if one of their races is downgraded. Making these judgments is a thankless task, but Duncker and the nine other members of the committee realized that their power to grade races gave them a way to affect drug policy.

Over the years, some of the most vociferous anti-drug crusaders had advocated that all medications be banned in Grade 1 stakes, but that was too radical an idea to garner widespread support. "We wanted to come up with something tough enough, but pragmatic," Duncker said. And so the committee fashioned a plan: In order for any stakes race to be graded, the track must employ a protocol of drug-testing standards set down by TOBA. It must subject the horses in that race to tests for 140 different drugs - the sort of uniform testing standard that the industry has never been able to agree on.

Committee members knew that the changes would run into potential obstacles at the state level; they fretted that an important track might balk, allowing its important races to be ungraded and undermining the prestige of the whole race-grading system. But TOBA found some important allies. Three of the nation's major tracks - Belmont Park in New York, Keeneland in Kentucky and Santa Anita in California - will employ the new testing standards this fall before the rules are imposed nationwide in 2004.

TOBA's initiative will not instantly remedy the sport's drug problems. Dishonest trainers and vets are continually finding new drugs that chemists can't detect, and they are surely using substances that aren't on TOBA's 140-item list. Moreover, TOBA's drug testing protocols will apply to only a tiny fraction of the 54,000 races run in the U.S. each year. But Duncker hopes that the rules applied to graded stakes might represent the first step toward a uniform national medication policy that encompasses all the races in America. In an industry that been paralyzed by an inability to deal with illegal drugs, even a small first step is momentous.

(c) The Washington Post, 2003