By James L. Gagliano
“There’s no legitimate use for dermorphin in racing. This drug in horses is an abuse of the horse. This puts the horse’s life in danger. It puts the jockey’s life in danger. This is an attempt to cheat. This is bad stuff. This is doping."
That is how Charles Gardiner, the executive director of the Louisiana State Racing Commission, reacted in the New Orleans Times-Picayune when news broke recently that 10 horses that had raced at Louisiana tracks has tested positive for the powerful, pain-killing drug dermorphin.
Only a few trainers in Louisiana have been named at this time, but we understand that there are dozens of dermorphin positives from multiple states on the horizon. The trainers in Louisiana whose horses have tested positive for dermorphin were issued six-month suspensions.
Three months ago, The Jockey Club published an updated version of its Reformed Racing Medication Rules. Those new rules feature a cumulative penalty system featuring stronger penalties for repeat violations. Fines, disqualifications and even lifetime suspensions would be possible for those persistently operating outside regulatory limits.
(They are available at: jockeyclub.com/pdfs/reformed_rules.pdf.)
If those rules were in effect in Louisiana, or any of the other states in which the same drug has been found recently, any trainer found to have treated a horse with dermorphin would have received, at a minimum, 150 points on his record, a 10-year suspension and a $37,000 fine.
It is abundantly clear that the current enforcement system is not working properly. The regulatory penalty structure has failed.
We see evidence of this with these blatant attempts by a few unscrupulous parties to beat our drug-testing system. We see more evidence of this in the high proportion of drug violations that only result in fines — fines that are trivial in amount when compared to the purses at stake.
Penalties for repeat offenders have been particularly and excruciatingly deficient.
In fact, there is no better example of the failure of our penalty system than dermorphin. According to published reports, one of the recent “positives” for dermorphin in Louisiana is associated with a horse whose trainer is alleged to have two prior Class 1 violations on his record. Drugs in this class, according to Racing Commissioners International guidelines, have no generally accepted medical use in the racing horse and their pharmacologic potential for altering the performance of a racing horse is very high.
Sadly, inconsequential penalties have become just another cost of doing business. Fines for medication violations are often no more than a small percentage of monthly drug and veterinary expenses in a stable.
The harm these incidents do to our sport is immeasurable and irreparable. The dermorphin (“frog juice”) stories ended up on the front page of The New York Times and on the TIME magazine website, among many other mainstream outlets.
We are not the only sport that plays constant catch-up on new performance-enhancing drugs. Look no further than the use of anabolic steroids in baseball or EPO in cycling.
But the general public does not, and should not be expected to, differentiate between therapeutic and performance-enhancing drugs in racing. That is why all race-day medications should be prohibited.
The Jockey Club has committed substantial resources to reinvigorate the sport of Thoroughbred racing with a host of fan and owner development initiatives, ranging from television programming and social games and to the creation and launch of a new brand (America’s Best Racing).
But we cannot address sustainability issues for our sport until image, integrity, and animal welfare issues, triggered most of all by lax and inconsistent drug policies, are managed and contained.
Otherwise, we will suffer death by a thousand cuts.
Our hats go off to Petra Hartmann of Industrial Laboratories Co. Inc. in the Denver area for conducting research that led to the development of a post-race test that found and identified dermorphin.
Clearly, we need to improve the standards of all of our drug-testing labs, accredit them and then ensure that they share their common procedures and findings in a unified effort to improve the integrity of the sport.
Back in January, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) board of directors voted to shift the group’s main research focus from therapeutic medications to drugs that pose an immediate threat to the integrity of racing.
That was a good decision.
Regulators know we have to reform our rules, and so do most horsemen.
“Problems like we’re having now with dermorphin, quite simply, can be traced to three issues,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board. “Our laboratories are underfunded, our research is underfunded, and our penalties are inadequate.”
A longtime owner, breeder and trainer named Christine Janks recently took our industry to task for its lackadaisical approach to drugs and penalties in a commentary that appeared in the Paulick Report.
She said, “I wonder about all the people defrauded out of winnings while this has been going on, and I wonder if racing will ever get serious about getting rid of the criminals…. Maybe we ought to try a novel approach: Give the honest guy a chance.”
If someone within our industry feels that way, we can only imagine how fans or prospective fans feel as they digest reports about frog juice and other illegal elements.
It was heartening to see the Thoroughbred Racing Associations board of directors call for the implementation of uniform regulations regarding more restrictive use of a limited number of therapeutic drugs, a strong penalty structure for violators, and the elimination of treatment practices that could imperil the welfare of the horse when racing.
It is encouraging to see industry organizations such as Breeders’ Cup Limited and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association taking steps to reform drug policies, and it is comforting to see racing commissions moving in the same direction.
The decision by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on June 13 to begin a phase out of furosemide in graded or listed stakes races was one example.
New rules in New Mexico take effect July 31 and include lowering the legal level of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that horses can receive before racing, which was recommended by the RMTC and The Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Safety Committee.
Charles Gardiner is exactly right when he talks about dermorphin.
This is bad stuff. This is doping.
We need to make reforms and we need to do so now. The racing commissions of this country should redesign their rules. And the adoption of Reformed Racing Medication Rules is a good place to start.
James L. Gagliano is the president and chief operating officer of The Jockey Club.
Note: Charles Gardiner, the executive director of the Louisiana State Racing Commission, contacted The Jockey Club following the release of this essay and said that the penalty handed out by the stewards in this case was limited by regulation. He asked that the following language from the ruling be added to the essay, noting the Louisiana stewards' desire for additional actions: "In the opinion of the stewards, the penalty imposed is insufficient and is referred to the LSRC for further review and action."