Ogden Mills Phipps:
Thank you, Matt and Hiram. Our next speaker, Ryan Goldberg, won a Media Eclipse Award for writing last year in the feature commentary category. And his byline has appeared in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and Men's Journal. This spring, the Thoroughbred Daily News produced an in-depth series of six articles dedicated to medication and drug testing in our sport. Ryan researched and wrote three of those articles, and he is here today to share some of his observations.
Welcome to the Round Table.
Thank you, Chairman Phipps. I was invited here to speak about medication from a journalist's perspective. Based on my reporting of this subject over the last year. This perspective might be different from many in this room. I've never saddled a horse. I haven't walked the shed row daily looking at all those expectant faces. I've never felt the heat of competition or had to navigate various state by state threshold levels, but I grew up with someone who did.
My father, Lew Goldberg, was a trainer in the '70s and early 80s, before I was born. And I grew up in a New Jersey house where even after he had left the track, winner's circle photos covered our walls like family heirlooms. He met my mom at the track.
That environment, those magical looking photos, drew me to Monmouth Park well before I was old enough to wager, and not long after a reporter's post at the Asbury Park Press.
I've written about horse racing for 13 years now, and I'm 30. My dad reads all of my articles, and so recently, as I embarked on an investigation of drugs in racing for the Thoroughbred Daily News, copies of the whole series by the way can be found at your tables, it was only natural that I turn to him for a horseman's response.
I pored over the medication records for the horses that died at Aqueduct in 2011 and 2012, and the picture they painted with depressing specificity was both shocking and disillusioning, for me at least. These documents show nearly every trainer pushing right up against the withdrawal times for a variety of drugs. Stacking similar anti inflammatories and corticosteroids, evidently searching for combinations which might prove more effective than the parts.
But perhaps I was missing something. I wondered, was my read of the situation off? So I asked my dad: Why would a trainer inject the knee with Hyaluronic Acid six days before a race, and give dexamethasone a corticosteroid and bute, 48 hours before post time? Or in another case, DMSO, Vetalog, Vitamin K, and Liquamycin, 48 hours before a race, then bute and electrolytes the day before? Or separately, give 24 separate injections of 9 different drugs in three and a half weeks?
My dad looked like he had seen a ghost. He could only shake his head. He didn't even realize that a trainer could give bute within 24 hours of a race. All of this was legal, he asked incredulously? The only purpose as he could see it was to get another race out of the horse.
The authors of the official report issued by the New York Task Force on Race Horse Health and Safety more or less agreed. The use of drugs and this was legal, mind you, had often masked pain and thwarted detection of injury. They concluded that half the deaths could have been prevented. Extrapolate this out to racing as a whole, where no task forces convene, and you get a sad and troubling picture.
Has medication changed that much since my father trained? I believe the answer is yes. Drugs are now more sophisticated; there are more private vets on the backstretch, more Lasix, more of everything. It is a culture.
In writing these stories for the Thoroughbred Daily News, I learned that drugs have been part of horse racing going back to the late 19th century. But something changed dramatically in the mid 20th century. It used to be hop 'em or stop 'em, whatever was on hand, whereas now pharmacological drugs are used to manage pain or treat bleeding or sedate or build muscle mass, to speed up a horse, but also to push it to compete through complications or unfelt pain.
The advances in pharmacology have had certain benefits. Nearly every drug has a therapeutic purpose if used properly. So you would presume then that each racing jurisdiction guided by the science would treat each medication the same. Of course, as I learned, this isn't the case. No two states are the same, even neighbors and stables shipping on familiar circuits, like from Florida to New York, find wildly different policies in each new place from what drugs are allowed and in what dosage, to how they are tested, to the penalties for violating these rules.
Some of the regulators we spoke to in the course of this series were not even aware of their own rules. What hope then is there for proper enforcement or fair competition, or the safety and welfare of the horses?
This was one of the big takeaways for me in the course of this series. In American racing there is no clear distinction between where therapy ends and competition begins, and I think that needs to change.
As far as prescribing drugs, one veterinarian put it simply, race horse is not a diagnosis.
There were other interesting findings from my reporting. Some of them surprised me, and I wasn't alone. Last October, Kentucky went from private to state employed vets to administer Lasix on race day. Dr. Mary Scollay, the Equine Medical Director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and a regulatory vet for 25 years was shocked by what she learned. The concentration of Lasix in post race samples dropped 30%, meaning private vets had been giving Lasix close to an hour an hour closer to the race. The four hour rule had been tossed aside. And when the state vets started going around, they'd get requests to give Lasix in the muscle or other drugs all together. Again, this was not allowed.
Let's call this what it was: Cheating. You might say it was only Lasix, but then why have a rule in the first place? Dr. Scollay also found that the noise in post race tests largely disappeared, including that of a sedative found in something called Carolina Gold. It's not listed in RCI guidelines, but was believed to be in widespread use. Trainers and vets were eager to get even more substances into a horse only hours prior to the race. Is this therapy?
Yet, a majority of states still allow private practicing vets to administer race day medication.
I heard along the way from several officials that racing is a clean sport. To them I would say that depends on world class testing. Racing does not have that at the moment. I learned that Florida uses a methodology seen as outdated since the 1980s. New York uses something one step up from there, a test that when used for general screening has been eclipsed by newer methods.
Of the 16 laboratories which handle the nation's drug testing, after all these years, only two recently earned RMTC accreditation. Very little of this is public knowledge.
Bettors exist in the dark, as do many others, of course. This would be like Wall Street but without the SEC and public filings, and they have problems of fraud as is.
As a journalist, I believe the problem lies here. I want transparency. This is why the New York task report was so valuable, momentous, even. It pulled back the curtain on the deeply entrenched culture of drug use, shining light on a previously dark room occupied only by trainers and vets. It showed how trainers used clenbuterol for its anabolic effects as regularly as it was a feed supplement instead of a powerful airway drug, and how dependent trainers are on corticosteroids. This was disclosed, remember, only because trainers provided information in return for anonymity.
If racing is 99.9 percent clean, as some argue, then show me. Publish who is tested, what they were tested for, what type of test was used, and what the result was, not just pass/fail.
Let the public see the results. List exactly what drugs you allow. I can tell you from reading the various state regulations that most do not. So that leaves private vets as the gatekeepers.
Most importantly, make medication records public. It's been done before. NYRA published the records for the Belmont Stakes runners leading up to the race. Why not every graded stakes? How would the public and journalists and animal welfare groups react to seeing this information? I believe that transparency like this would stop excessive drug use in its tracks.
Two examples illustrate this. In 2005, Pennsylvania announced it would begin testing for milk shaking. For five years bettors operated on this expectation, and maybe even some trainers who were out of the loop, like those shipping in from outside the state. Then in 2010, the state finally started testing, without acknowledging its earlier claim.
Similarly in 1999, it came out in Kentucky that you could basically milkshake a horse right in the paddock. State officials declared that they would fix it immediately. Six years later, they finally did.
There are many tools at the disposal of racetrack management and racing commissions. Most are collecting dust. I recently spoke to a track executive who bemoaned the fact that several trainers, and he called them cheaters, had taken over his track, winning with everything they claimed. Some guys wouldn't enter to run against them. He went on and on about how nobody in racing wants to clean up the game. But he runs the track, and it never seemed to occur to him that he could and should do something. Well here are some suggestions.
He could commit 24 hour surveillance to their barns. He could randomly test their horses, out of competition testing. He could have investigators pull treatment records and check whether they match up with the horse's post race tests. He could test smarter. Instead of the winner and beaten favorite, how about the winner and a horse who ran suspiciously well for second or third? And if he finds evidence of wrong doing, he could use his private property rights to exclude these trainers.
But these trainers fill races, so short term viability outweighs any moral and ethical considerations.
There are models to choose from, mostly overseas, but a few in this country. I spoke to Jeff Gural, who has implemented these measures at his three harness tracks, including the Meadowlands. He hired a private investigator to visit training centers at any hour and conduct out of competition testing. He sends his samples to labs around the country and overseas, withholding from trainers and vets what is being tested and where so that they can't beat the test.
He has kicked out several trainers on the spot, including one who was second in earnings nationally. I can't recall that ever happening at a Thoroughbred track. Though we know that the majority of the most successful trainers have had high profile positives.
Except Gural is an island. No harness tracks have reciprocated his exclusions. And he said not a single Thoroughbred executive has called to pick his brain. But at the Meadowlands, handle is up in part, Gural believes, because bettors seem to like a level playing field.
So much more can be done in the presently flawed system. Penalties must be significantly strengthened. The amount of fines must increase and loopholes close for transferring horses to assistants, and that line between competition and therapy I talked about must be widened. Forget a line, it should be like the Grand Canyon.
Many tracks take entries close to a week ahead now. Evangeline Downs in Louisiana is one example…but in Louisiana all the so-called therapeutic medications, though the racing commission does not specify which, are allowed within 24 hours of the race. So that means after a horse passes the entry box, there are still days for an arsenal of medication to be emptied out , for a horse to get tapped out so he can stagger out for one more race like some punch drunk fighter.
As a result, some states have extended their withdrawal types for corticosteroids; more have not.
Setting aside the discussion of federal versus state regulation, there need to be wholesale changes, not piecemeal, and I think there is support for this. But I tend to be skeptical that state racing commissions, which have had 30 plus years to effect meaningful reform, or casino companies that see their racetracks as a nuisance, will be proactive and decisive in bringing about strict regulation, testing, and enforcement.
States have budgetary problems, and one or two national laboratories which handle all the tests would be a big step in the right direction.
These are the ideas and feelings I've developed from years of reporting on this subject. They are the perspectives of a journalist.
But I'll end on a personal note. My father retired recently from the job he took after leaving the track, and get this, 30 years later, he wants to train again. Once it gets in your blood, as all of you know, it never leaves. He'll be like a 64 year old rookie.
But he's afraid, afraid he won't be able to compete with guys today and what they're using. How could he keep up? Selfishly, I want racing to clean up its act so he can return, and with good, honest horsemanship, won't get overrun. I want a level playing field so he and others like him, can do what they love without compromising their principles, and maybe add a few winner's circle photos to the wall. Thank you.