Making real change in Thorough-bred racing is a little like making a U-turn in an aircraft carrier. It’s slow, steady, potentially dangerous and pretty delicate. It helps if you lean.
Much has been written and said in the past two years about medication reform. Driven by the Mid-Atlantic at first, the progress has included relatively uniform rules, lists of permitted medications, a penalty system with points for violations (like a driver’s license), the removal of race-day medication except Lasix, and more.
But the ship still isn’t headed the other direction, and never will be unless truly uniform rules are in place for medication violations, rules infractions and penalties.
In February, the Maryland Jockey Club announced it would refuse to take entries from trainer Juan Vazquez and ordered his horses removed from stalls at Pimlico Race Course. The decision came in response to four medication positives accrued in December and January by Hector Garcia, who was running the Vazquez stable while his boss served a six-month suspension for an altercation with jockey Trevor McCarthy at Delaware Park in June.
Horses trained by Garcia tested positive for the steroid stanozolol three times and the sedative xylazine once. Due in part to the new multiple medication violation points system, the Maryland Racing Com-mis-sion suspended Garcia for 13 months.
Of course, the suspension barely mattered as Vazquez, whose suspension for the McCarthy incident was over, could return as the trainer of record.
The MJC shanked that idea, at its tracks anyway, with the February move. Vazquez and Garcia were no longer permitted on the properties. And neither were their horses.
The MJC says the path is legal and war-ranted?–?the tracks are private property?–??even if it’s forceful and open to all sorts of “What if?” discussions.
The first question got answered rather quickly as other regional tracks accepted horses trained by Vazquez, who was active at Penn National, Parx Racing and Charles Town in March?–?though they had not granted him stalls.
You want an example of what is wrong with American Thoroughbred racing? Look no further.
Trainers can be multiple violators of various rules and regulations?–?from doping horses to trying to punch a jockey?–?but continue to train. Racetracks should not have to resort to taking away stalls and refusing entries. Racetracks should also have confidence that commissions and licensing authorities can properly deal with violators. Commissions should have the authority to create rules that will stand up to appeals processes and other legal challenges. And real penalties should cross state lines.
By banning Vazquez, a frequent leader at individual meets in the region, Maryland put itself at a disadvantage in terms of filling races. His horses started 426 times in 2014, despite missing several months while under suspension, and topped 400 in 2013. MJC officials figure they can live with fewer runners in exchange for more public confidence, a more level playing field and maybe?–?just maybe?–?more interest from other trainers.
Anyone wishing to push the system in Maryland should feel warned.
The other three trainers hit with steroid positives?–?Ferris Allen III, Scott Lake and Jerry Thurston?–?were not barred from the grounds though all faced combinations of suspensions and points on their licenses.
The commission upheld Lake’s penalty in an appeal heard March 17. The trainer, whose career includes steroid positives in Pennsylvania in 2014 and 2013, faced a 120-day ban and a $1,000 fine. Allen’s appeal was pending.
So where does any of this leave medication reform?
As soon as possible, all states should adopt the multiple medication violation points system (and add a section to address other rules violations, like trying to assault another licensee for example). It was created by the Association of Racing Com-mis-sioners International and has thus far been fully adopted by eight states (though nine others are in the process) according to the website horseracingreform.com.
Similar phrases showing various levels of progress turn up all over that website. It’s fascinating. I know it’s complicated and subject to the varied state racing and wagering laws, but nationally recommended and well-researched rules should not be optional.
I love the progress made in medication reform. Given where the sport was, this is all new ground.
But there’s a long way to go. And we might need tugboats.