04/17/2014 3:19PM

Stronach makes medication reforms the No. 1 priority at his tracks


The tracks owned by the Stronach Group, a roster that includes Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita, Golden Gate, Laurel, and Pimlico, will seek to put in place house rules that would require owners to release their vet records to track officials and that would establish ontrack pharmacies controlling all medications administered to horses, the owner of the company, Frank Stronach, said in a statement Wednesday.

The proposal, which also included support for a set of uniform rules governing medication administrations and penalties, faces a number of logistical and legal hurdles. Stronach Group officials said Thursday that many of the restrictions would be imposed as house rules, which can be difficult to enforce legally if the rules run up against state or federal legal protections.

Tim Ritvo, general manager of Gulfstream Park, said that establishing the house rules is “the number one priority” for the company. The company is immediately seeking to hire an “equine health and safety director” to establish and implement the policies for its tracks, Ritvo said, with the director answering to a committee comprised of horse owners, trainers, and veterinarians. The members of the committee have yet to be identified.

“We’re moving as fast as we can go,” Ritvo said. “It’s a huge issue for us. We think this can bring integrity to the sport.”

The proposal is being launched at a time when racing is facing a deep existential crisis on how the sport is regulated. Critics of racing contend that the sport is suffering from a lack of uniform rules among states and from lax regulations governing medication, coupled with a backstretch culture that, like the modern world at large, has become increasingly reliant on pharmaceutical remedies to address routine maladies.

Stronach, 82, is one of the most powerful persons in racing, the billionaire owner of several large breeding farms and the winner of multiple Eclipse Awards for outstanding owner and outstanding breeder. He began buying racetracks and other racing-related companies in the late 1990s through a public company he founded, and he took private control of the racing assets in 2011 after another public company he established to own and operate them went bankrupt.

The notion of establishing ontrack pharmacies to distribute medications to veterinarians mimics a model used solely in Hong Kong, where racing is strictly regulated by a non-profit company that owns and operates the province’s two racetracks. In Hong Kong, the veterinarians are employed by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the racetrack owner and regulator, whereas in the United States, racetrack veterinarians are independent businesspeople. The statement also said that Stronach’s tracks would prohibit “anyone from having any medications in their possession unless those medications have been properly prescribed for a therapeutic treatment program.”

Dr. Jeff Blea, a California racetrack veterinarian who is the president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, said that the idea of an ontrack pharmacy was studied several years ago in California but it was not pursued because of the complexity of the project. He said he thought it was a “good idea worth exploring,” but he also said that it would have drawbacks that would need to be worked through in order to protect the horse.

“Who’s going to own it, who’s going to operate it, who’s going to have access to it, who’s going to purchase the medications,” Blea said. “There’s a lot more to it than just saying there’s going to be an ontrack pharmacy at every Stronach track.”

Phil Hanrahan, executive director of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said that horsemen also were supportive of new policies that would provide more safeguards and transparency on the treatment of horses, but he said that “the devil is in the details.”

Also under the new policies, Stronach’s tracks would have “the right to request all veterinarian records and have them examined by an independent team of veterinarians,” presumably through language on stall applications or as a condition of entry. California already enforces a similar rule.

Stronach’s endorsement of uniform medication policies is one of a number of recent endorsements by national and state organizations, including the Jockey Club, for a set of regulations devised and approved by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and the Association of Racing Commissioners International. The rules have been fully implemented in four states, with a dozen other states in the process of adopting or implementing them.

Florida, where Gulfstream is located, is not one of them. In the past several weeks, the state’s horsemen, breeders, and racetracks, along with the Jockey Club, urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would allow the uniform medication rules to be adopted in the state, but legislators balked, according to multiple officials.

“There was a consensus of tracks, horsemen, and breeders, saying we all want this,” said Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “It’s not our fault. It’s the legislature’s.”

Stronach said in his statement that if “all racing states” do not adopt the uniform regulations by Sept. 1, his company would lobby for the passage of an existing federal bill appointing the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a private non-profit company, as the overseer of all medication regulation in U.S. racing. The Jockey Club has said that if “a majority” of racing states do not adopt the regulations, it also will press for the approval of the federal bill, which would prohibit the raceday use of the diuretic furosemide, an anti-bleeding medication legal to administer on raceday in every North American racing jurisdiction.

The proposal also would require that all ship-ins to Stronach tracks undergo mandatory drug tests. Like all other horses entered to race, ship-ins are routinely tested at tracks under policies mandating post-race drug-testing for winners and randomly selected horses, along with pre-race tests for alkalinizing agents.