Updated on 08/12/2016 7:17PM

UFC's Novitzky gets in the ring at Round Table


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Horse racing may not appear to have much, if anything, in common with mixed martial arts. Still, an official with that sport’s most prominent league will attempt to lay out its common ground with racing on Sunday as a guest of The Jockey Club at its Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing in Saratoga Springs.

Jeff Novitzky, the vice president of athlete health and performance for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is scheduled to speak just prior to the Round Table’s keynote speaker, Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Novitzky’s placement near the end of the program telegraphs The Jockey Club’s estimation of his message, which will focus on the UFC’s recent hiring of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to design and enforce the sport’s drug-testing program.

Over the past four years, two representatives of USADA, a private, nonprofit company that conducts the drug-testing program for the U.S. Olympic teams, have appeared as keynote speakers at the Round Table, coinciding with a Jockey Club push to bring USADA into horse racing’s fold as the sport’s federally appointed drug-testing overseer. Federal legislation that would accomplish that has been introduced in the House, but it is almost certainly dead this year due to a variety of reasons, including election-year politics.

Novitzky is expected to detail the UFC’s experience with USADA since its drug-testing program was fully implemented earlier this summer, an experience that has been a double-edged sword. While USADA’s involvement has brought credibility to a sport that has long been dogged by suspicions of drug abuse, the testing program has also tarnished the UFC by instantly returning positives for some of its top stars.

In the most recent high-profile cases, Jon Jones, a top fighter, was pulled from a heavily promoted fight three days prior to a UFC card on July 9 after he tested positive for an illegal drug in an out-of-competition test, causing the UFC to offer refunds to fans who had bought tickets for the event or purchased pay-per-view subscriptions. Then, one week after the card Jones was to appear on, the UFC announced that a fighter who did appear on the card, Brock Lesnar, tested positive for the same drug as Jones, also from an out-of-competition test preceding the fight, leading to sharp criticism from Lesnar’s defeated opponent.

Still, Novitzky has expressed nothing but unqualified support for USADA.

“Let me be clear: Just because this is my program, those days and those occurrences are challenging,” Novitzky said at a recent conference, referring to the recent uproar caused by the Jones and Lesnar positives. “I never want to see that happen. I don’t take any pleasure that the program is working, seeing that happen.”

While Novitzky is also expected to draw parallels to the racing industry because both sports are regulated at the state level, the UFC and racing have some sharp differences. Like other major sporting leagues, the UFC is a company, and companies have much broader, far more powerful rights over the conduct of their businesses than the scattered collections of tracks and horsemen in the racing industry that often act in competition with each other.

Still, Novitzky’s presentation may touch on an option for the racing industry that has been the subject of some discussion over the past several months, and that is the possibility that a collective of tracks could band together to hire USADA or another agency to devise rules and conduct drug tests as a condition of participation at their tracks. Such an option would face serious legal challenges, however, and those challenges may be insurmountable without a fundamental change in how the racing industry is structured.

Not that The Jockey Club and other supportive organizations are giving up on the federal bill just yet. The two representatives who introduced the bill, Reps. Andy Barr, a Republican from Kentucky, and Paul Tonko, a Democrat from New York, are scheduled to provide an update on the bill during the first half of the Round Table, and they likely will focus on their recent efforts to gain more support for the bill. Both representatives have said that they expect a companion bill to be introduced soon in the Senate, but there is little to no chance that the bill gets any play this year, especially when several powerful constituencies remain opposed to any federal intervention.

The keynote speaker, Engelbrecht-Bresges of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, will give a presentation entitled “The Journey to World Class Racing and Success via Customer Centricity,” according to The Jockey Club. The Hong Kong Jockey Club is one of the most powerful racing companies in the world, a nonprofit that runs the Chinese province’s two racetracks while also setting and enforcing the jurisdiction’s rules and regulations. While it generates billions of dollars in revenue from a highly popular but tightly controlled array of gambling businesses in the province, it is also an outlier among the world’s racing jurisdictions, seemingly armored against the larger market and cultural forces that are threatening the sport worldwide.

The Jockey Club Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. EDT on Sunday and will be streamed live at jockeyclub.com.