The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, whose testing and tenacity has exposed such high-profile drug-cheating athletes as Marion Jones, Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong, is poised to enter the horse racing arena.
That’s the intent of legislation that would put USADA in charge of setting and enforcing anti-doping standards in the $10 billion-a-year U.S. horse racing industry, which has been sullied by deaths and breakdowns on the track and skepticism at betting windows that are its lifeblood.
Thursday in Washington, USADA CEO Travis Tygart will testify in support of the initiative at a Congressional hearing on the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which was introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Reps. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Joe Pitts (R-Pa.). Tygart is expected to tell the panel that an independent agency is essential to restoring faith and fair play in the sport and that USADA is well positioned for the task.
“If they want to ensure a level playing field, they should have an independent model with uniform rules that are fully enforced — particularly in a sport where the gaming side of it is so important,” Tygart said in a telephone interview. “It’s inherently unfair to the competition for one athlete to gain an unfair advantage, but in an industry that is so heavily based on the calculation of the odds, it’s more important to ensure that competitions aren’t rigged.”
According to information cited by Udall when the draft legislation was introduced, more than $10.8 billion was wagered on American horse racing last year and $133 million on the Kentucky Derby alone.
As it is, what drug testing exists in U.S. horse racing is carried out under a patchwork of policies and procedures that vary wildly from one state to another. With no uniformity on what performance-boosting practices and substances are permissible, and in what amounts, a trainer may be suspended for triggering too many positive tests in one state, yet welcomed by tracks in another state.
Tygart likened it to the Olympic competitions of the 1990s, before the World Anti-Doping Agency was established in 1999 and ultimately extracted commitments from governments worldwide to adhere to a single standard.
“Different countries tested for different substances with different testing methods,” Tygart said of the pre-WADA era. “They didn’t have collection policies; there was no uniform practice. It created a perception that was bad for sport. Everyone who was around at that time will acknowledge that the Olympic rings were tarnished. And that was bad for business.”
Similar thinking is driving the horse racing legislation, which would also ban race-day medication of horses and require stiff penalties for cheating, including lifetime bans for serial violators.
“Horses are dying, and jockeys are being maimed because of out-of-control abuse of legal and illegal drugs in horse racing,” Pitts said through a spokesman. “The U.S. is the only developed nation where doping in the sport is routinely ignored. After decades of promises to clean up the sport, it’s time to bring in a neutral observer. USADA is known for its integrity in governing U.S. Olympic athletes and cycling. I believe they would do an excellent job.”
A non-profit corporation based in Colorado Springs, USADA began operations in Oct. 2000 with the mission of eliminating drug-use in sports and protecting athletes’ health through research and education. Its funding comes primarily from the U.S. government and U.S. Olympic Committee, with the government covering about 60 percent of costs.
Tygart said that if USADA takes on responsibility for horse racing, it would not draw any additional revenue required from the sport itself.
“You can’t both police your sport and promote it,” Tygart said. “When you promote it, you want more revenue and are not concerned as much about the integrity of the competition. You avoid scandal. The independent model takes it out of that analysis; it isn’t as concerned about the economic, revenue growth or sponsorship. It takes away that inherent conflict of interest.”