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Steroids put racing on the hot seat
LEXINGTON, Ky. - On Thursday, the racing world will find itself in a position it had worked three years to avoid. It will be asked under oath by federal legislators to explain the sport's policies on anabolic steroids in the wake of a Triple Crown season that will be remembered more for its defeats than its triumphs.
The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection has called 12 racing representatives to a hearing titled "Breeding, Drugs, and Breakdowns." Though such hearings are commonly called to swing the spotlight on legislators eager to generate publicity - and though the hearings rarely result in federal action - the racing industry will be forced to answer uncomfortable questions about its commitment to ridding the sport of drugs in an atmosphere that is designed to be hostile.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, especially since the hearing threatens to disrupt the industry's own work at the state level. Three years ago, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, an industry-funded group that has developed model rules for the sport, issued an urgent recommendation to ban or regulate anabolic steroids, fearing that one of racing's best-kept secrets would finally be exposed to a world that has become unforgiving of the connection of steroids with sports. Slowly - and largely out of the public's view - the industry came around to the consortium's side, and by the beginning of 2008, 10 of the 38 racing states had put the rules in place for implementation later in the year. By the time the Kentucky Derby arrived in early May, nearly every major racing state was in the process of adopting the rules.
But then the filly Eight Belles broke down after finishing second in the Derby. In reaction, animal-rights groups and the general public started asking questions about whether the filly had been administered anabolic steroids. Her trainer, Larry Jones, rebutted the questions and asked regulators to conduct drug tests on the dead filly. The tests were negative.
After Big Brown seized the Triple Crown spotlight with dominant wins in the Derby and Preakness Stakes, the colt's trainer, Rick Dutrow, acknowledged that anabolic steroids were routinely given to his horses and that Big Brown had received his regular monthly injection of the powerful anabolic stanozolol - which is marketed as Winstrol - on April 15. Dutrow said that Big Brown did not receive an injection on May 15, and also said that he did not know what anabolic steroids did for horses.
Anabolic steroids began dominating a public discussion of racing. Industry officials anxiously answered questions about the sport's efforts to regulate the drugs, but the responses were viewed as unsatisfactory by sports fans who had grown accustomed to the sight of major professional athletes retreating from public life under suspicion of using the drugs to boost their performance.
Racing officials said that they eavesdropped on the debate with a feeling of helplessness.
"I listened to people, I read the stories, I tried to absorb what was going on," said Stuart Janney III, the owner and breeder who is the chairman of a new committee set up by The Jockey Club that will recommend policies to improve the safety of horses. "There were some arguments and opinions that are just plain wrong about what we need to do."
So now, under pressure, the racing industry is caught in a bind. Racing officials view the model rule as a practical way to keep steroids from influencing the results of races. But does the rule go far enough? It bans all but four steroids, stopping short of the zero-tolerance ostensibly practiced by other sports. The four that will be allowed to be administered - testosterone, boldenone, stanozolol, and nandrolone - cannot be used within 30 days of a race, a limit that racing officials believe will keep trainers from abusing the drugs but will still allow for therapeutic use.
As is typical for medication policies in racing, no hard science backs up the racing industry's rule. No scientific studies have been conducted to determine what effect, if any, steroids have on a horse, although no one disputes the premise that the drugs help build muscle mass, rev up a horse's appetite, and aid in a horse's recovery from strenuous exercise.
So critical questions remain unanswered. What frequency of administration and what dosage of the drug would build muscle and enhance performance? Veterinarians contend that the typical once-a-month administration would not build muscle, but it's merely an opinion. What happens when a horse is withdrawn from steroids after regular administrations? Anecdotally, trainers and owners talk about the "incredible shrinking horse" who loses his appetite, a hundred pounds, and a willingness to compete. And could Big Brown's mysterious performance in the Belmont - he finished last after being pulled up as a tired horse at the top of the stretch - be attributed to Dutrow's statement that he decided not to give the horse his regular steroid shot three weeks earlier? No one knows for sure.
"There's zero science on that end," said Dr. Scot Waterman, the executive director of the medication consortium. "Almost all of the published literature is on detection."
The rationale for allowing the restricted administration of anabolic steroids rests in part on the fact that the drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in horses - unlike in Europe, where steroids are banned in all livestock and where horses are part of the food chain in many countries. In addition, according to racing officials, implementing a complete ban on the drugs is logistically impossible: Two of the restricted anabolic steroids - testosterone and boldenone - are naturally occurring, so any test to detect steroids needs to distinguish between artificial and natural levels. And classifying the other two steroids as prohibited substances would require widespread out-of-competition testing to catch abusers, a system that the financially strapped racing industry says it cannot afford.
But given the controversy surrounding steroid use in sports like baseball, football, and track and field, it's fair to ask whether the model rule adequately addresses the public's concerns. Will racing be able to justify its rules on steroids next year if a trainer acknowledges that he legally administered an anabolic steroid to a horse two months before the Kentucky Derby because the horse wasn't eating well?
"I'm sure someone will say that [the model rule] doesn't go far enough," said Alex Waldrop, the president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which is pressing states to adopt the rule by the end of 2008. "Most people want regulations that are black-and-white, yes-or-no, zero-tolerance, when in fact in some cases the humane thing to do for the horse is to give him a legal, FDA-approved medication. The point [of the model rule] is that if you do that, that horse gets taken out of competition. That's the whole point."
Janney said that public pressure to ban steroids is beneficial in that it is creating an environment in which the racing industry is being compelled to act on a subject that it should have tackled years ago. Still, the pressure can have drawbacks if the debate about the subject is uninformed, Janney said.
"The health and safety of the horse has to be the No. 1 priority," he said. "You don't want to do something that is stupid just because it might satisfy the broader audience that may not understand exactly what is going on."
Misunderstanding is widespread. One common belief is that steroids are banned in Europe and in other major racing countries. That is not exactly the case. Since testosterone and boldenone are naturally occurring, the countries that are signatories to regulations developed by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities - a list that includes every major racing country in Europe and South America, plus Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Dubai - allow for the same levels of those drugs as the U.S. model rule allows. In fact, when the consortium devised its model rule, it based the allowable concentration levels on the regulations in Europe and Australia.
Still, the international rule goes further by purporting to ban the drugs. Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky who is the ranking member of the subcommittee that will hold the hearing, referenced the European "ban" in a recent interview, suggesting the model rule in the U.S. did not go far enough.
"The model rule creates more problems than it solves," he said.
Under opposition from the racing industry, Whitfield has said he would support the creation of a federal authority that would regulate horse racing by amending the Interstate Horseracing Act. The act allows racing to conduct interstate simulcasting under the federal government's powers to regulate interstate commerce, and Whitfield has suggested that racetracks could lose their simulcast rights if they do not comply with federal mandates on drug policies.
Whitfield's reluctance to embrace the industry's efforts is shared by his wife, Connie Harriman-Whitfield, the chair of the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council. The council recommends drug policy to the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, where Harriman-Whitfield is the vice chair. She has suggested in recent meetings that she supports federal regulation.
Harriman-Whitfield is also the senior vice president for development of the Humane Society of the United States, an organization with immense lobbying power at the federal level. After the breakdown of Eight Belles, the organization launched a petition drive to ask the federal government to ban the racing of 2-year-olds. Racing veterinarians contend that the position has no scientific support given the horse's physiological development.
Harriman-Whitfield did not respond to requests for comment.
Harriman-Whitfield's position is countered by the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, an organization that has consistently opposed efforts to restrict the administration of drugs to horses. Horsemen's officials are sensitive to the steroid issue, but they say they fear the potential for existing drug tests to ensnare innocent trainers instead of abusers.
"I don't want to give the impression that we are against some sort of regulation of steroids," said Marty Maline, the executive director of the horsemen's group, when asked whether the organization opposed the model rule. "It's not to say that we're against something. We just want to make sure that all the necessary science is in place."
Oddly, both Harriman-Whitfield and the horsemen base their positions in part on remarks from the same man, Dr. Don Catlin, the founder of the Anti-Doping Research Institute and the scientist who helped expose steroid abuse in baseball. Earlier this year, Catlin told racing officials that the industry would be better off banning steroids - because its testing procedures were problematic. So both Harriman-Whitfield and the horsemen agree with Dr. Catlin, but with different aspects of his statement.
As a result of the opposing views, racing officials eager to implement the steroid rule are watching Kentucky closely, especially in light of the debate conducted during the Triple Crown. Among major racing states, Kentucky is likely the only jurisdiction that may deviate from the consensus behind the model rule. If the state is a holdout next year at Kentucky Derby time, the industry will be right back where it expects to be Thursday: answering the same questions from the same people about the same subject - anabolic steroids.