DRUGS IN AMERICAN RACING AND LESSONS THE REST OF RACING CAN LEARN
Last weekend the Breeders’ Cup provided us with some wonderful international horse racing. British and Irish horses more than held their own, and any number of positive stories emerged from the action at Keeneland.
That said, it was hard to escape the undertones of dissatisfaction and suspicion. A number of American-based trainers that enjoyed significant success over the two-day meeting at Keeneland have been under scrutiny for the wrong reasons in recent times, most notably the best-known American trainer of them all, Bob Baffert.
International and internal scrutiny of the issue of drugs in American racing has been constant for decades now, but events of the last year have brought the issue to a dramatic head. While the main talking point over the weekend focused on Baffert and his most recent spate of positive tests, a far darker cloud hangs over American racing. This is the pending federal case against a vast array of racing professionals in what will unquestionably be the highest-profile doping-related case in the long history of American horse racing. The details of it are genuinely shocking and some of them can be read here (https://www.paulickreport.com/news/the-biz/superseding-indictment-shows-navarro-and-servis-doping-programs-stretch-back-to-2016/).
While there has been widespread dissatisfaction and heated debate in American racing on the drug issue for decades, this case has really focused minds in the States and promises to finally bring about meaningful change.
DRUG TESTING IN A STATE...LITERALLY
Up to the present day, regulation of drug testing in America has been conducted on a state-by-state basis with differing rules and standards across every border. History has shown that self-regulated drug testing regimes don’t tend to work all that well in terms of maintaining integrity. There is endless evidence from a wide variety of sports where such regimes are no more than box-ticking exercises.
Occasional test failures and consequent punishments are held up as evidence of what a great job they are doing, but all too often sporting bodies have no real interest in aggressively pursuing wrongdoers - especially the more high-profile ones - for fear of creating PR nightmares. Given that many sports tend to have regulators intertwined with participants they are supposed to regulating, politics can play as big a role in policing as the pursuit of justice. This couldn’t be more applicable to horse racing.
Thus, there is a strong suspicion that for a drug testing regime to be truly effective and act as a real deterrent against wrongdoers, it needs to be completely independent of every other sector of the sport it is policing in order to avoid the influence of any political or PR considerations.
With this in mind, it is hoped the Horseracing Integrity Act could be a game changer in American racing. While there are still hurdles for it to clear, it could bring about the most rapid change in medication and doping culture in the history of the sport there. It has cross-party support and is currently making its way through the various stages to be signed into law. The significant change it promises to bring in the context of this conversation is that it will bring the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) into the fold in terms of drug testing and enforcement. USADA are best known for their role in bringing down the cyclist, Lance Armstrong.
PROVEN AGENCY USADA BROUGHT IN FOR CLEAN-UP JOB
There is a precedent for this sort of change in a major sport’s organisation, as back in 2015 the UFC brought in USADA to independently oversee the anti-doping programmes of their athletes. Up to that point, there were substantial suspicions and speculation about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport, yet there were precious few positive drug tests. Indeed, the testing was seen as so basic, and timing of the testing was so predictable, that one very high-profile fighter opined that failing a drug test in the UFC was akin to failing an IQ test.
However, the introduction of USADA into the equation changed everything very quickly. UFC fighters had to agree to a set of protocols that included the use of an app to disclose their location, which allowed USADA to test them anywhere, anytime. Coupled with much higher-quality and cutting-edge testing, this all served to bring about a rapid change in the sport. The physical appearances of some high-profile athletes that were considered likely cheaters visibly changed in a short space of time, and others incurred heavy suspensions after failing tests, including current and former world champions.
This unquestionably hurt the UFC’s business in the short term, with some of its biggest stars incurring significant bans which resulted in a huge amount of negative publicity and lost income, but in the longer term it was seen as a watershed moment in the history of the organisation. Some are still likely to be seeking an illegitimate edge in beating the testers, but there is no doubt the higher-quality testing and heavier punishments for offenders have served to significantly level the playing field and increase public faith in the integrity of the sport.
This is the result American horse racing will hope to achieve by bringing in USADA. However, with the sports reputation in the US having taken such a battering even before the aforementioned upcoming federal case against trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis amongst others, history may show that the move came too late.
AUTHORITIES CLOSER TO HOME NEED TO TAKE NOTE
Horse racing in Britain and Ireland doesn’t have anything like the reputational issues with regard to drugs as American racing does. Whether that is a reflection of there not being a big problem with drugs in these jurisdictions, or whether the reality is masked by inadequate testing, is a difficult question to answer with any sort of certainty.
Jim Bolger’s comments have served to shine a light on that question with regard to Irish racing. In particular, his insinuations that there are issues not being dealt with are very serious indeed. Whether or not there is a problem with drugs in Irish and/or British racing, the current self-regulation of testing is unlikely to do enough to allay the concerns of those that have them. If the governing bodies really want to face down this issue and prove the integrity of the sport, more needs to be done.
Whether enlisting the services of an independent organisation such as WADA to oversee anti-doping efforts in British and Irish horse racing is a viable option from a cost perspective can only be answered by the relevant authorities. However, anything less is always likely to be considered insufficient, particularly if USADA’s involvement has a positive impact on American racing in the years ahead.
British and Irish racing may not have a serious reputational issue right now, but with the subject of drugs in racing sure to become a focus point both during and after the upcoming federal case in America, it might not be a bad idea for them to consider getting on the front foot of the matter before it becomes a bigger issue.