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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Banned In NY

- NY State Racing and Wagering Board Chairman John Sabini announced the steroid ban on Tuesday at a press conference at its Manhattan offices; with the press consisting of a reporter from the AP, and me. It was right around the block, and seemed like a novel way to spend lunch hour. Karen Matthews, the AP reporter, brought a photographer too. He was snapping away at Sabini and Charles Hayward, made sure to get the latter's name and title, but I don't see any photos in the AP piece in any of the many outlets in which it appears. So his efforts seem to have gone for naught; hope he doesn't feel too bad.

I'll refer you to Ms. Matthews' report, since it covers most of the key points and quotes. The new rules, which will start on Jan 1, do permit the use of four specific steroids, but only one at a time, and at trace levels at which, according to Sabini's written statement, "veterinarians are in agreement....would not be enough to affect a horse's performance." In addition, a horse may exceed the proscribed limits for one drug at a time for therapeutic purposes, and would have to prove to be back in compliance with the maximum levels in order to get off the vet's list. Those of you who want to get all the technical details can see the new rule here.

Of course, nobody has ever really been able to say just how, or even if, steroids enhance horses' performances. This article from the AP last June is a good summary of that debate. Steroids are often said to help maintain appetite and a good coat; and to be of general help in training. There's apparently no indication that they can help a horse run faster and longer in a specific race, as blood doping and milkshaking are said to do. However, as a vet noted in the AP article linked to above: "You give it because you think they may improve their overall performance and keep them at the top of their game." I suppose that does qualify as performance enhancing in a more general sense.

I go back to two articles from the summer which I found pretty fascinating in combination - one in which trainer Bruce Levine claimed that "basically there is no difference in the performance of the horses after taking them off steroids,” which he says he did on Jan 1. But in the other, posted online the day before, he said that Bustin Stones was not doing well; that he "stopped eating and he lost some color." Bustin Stones was recently retired due to a foot injury.

Now, despite the obvious apparent connection there, I'm of course not claiming that Bustin Stones' problems were due to him going off steroids. Indeed, I don't even know if he was on them in the first place, and he was in excellent form as late as the Carter in April. However, based on what we read about steroids, it's a plausible scenario that a horse taken off steroids would suffer the problems that Levine described. That being the case, and say for argument's sake that, if not Bustin Stones, there are and have been horses in that situation, then one could argue that steroids are indeed performance enhancing in the most literal and basic sense - that is, permitting them to perform at all.

Though on the other hand, a perfectly sensible person might argue that, lacking any evidence that steroids cause the animal any harm - and I don't know that there is - they help keep good horses like, speculatively, Bustin Stones, on the track. But we'll leave that debate to another forum, because the steroid ban is simply a no-brainer at this point in time, at least in my mind. Steroids may or may not be the most pernicious drug in use, and may not be harmful at all. But it's the buzzword these days for cheating in sports. And with the year the sport has had in terms of its image, banning them is an easy and essential way to help regain integrity in the eyes of the betting public. They need to go in every state.

Nothing comes easily in New York as we know, so Chairman Sabini deserves due credit for getting this done. But there's certainly more to do. I asked him if there was anything in the works regarding out-of-competition testing for EPO's, and the answer was no. We've seen those tests in New Jersey and Canada, and at the recent Red Mile harness meeting as well - an exercise which produced several positives. Sabini instead touted the progress made against milkshaking, and Hayward chimed in with statistics from NYRA's testing showing how levels how decreased, and citing, as he has before, the fact that certain trainers have largely disappeared. NYRA and the state deserve full credit there too.

However, as Board member John Simoni said in the press release: "A diet of hay, oats and water should be our goal as we move towards a racing industry that is drug-free." That will require the state, and the industry as a whole, to be ready to adapt, just as the cheaters do. Banning steroids is only the start, and there's no reason why New York shouldn't take the lead.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Reading todays announcement about the NTRA/Thompson committee, I thought it was pretty funny that one of their main areas was:
"out-of-competition testing for blood and gene doping agents and pre-race testing"
Based on the answers to your questions of NYRA, I chuckled that it didn't take long to find an area of jurisdictional disagreement.