Friday, September 9, 2011

How Much Cheating?

Big kerfuffle over at the Paulick Report on the just-released report from the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) on drug test results from 2010. The report says that, of some 324,000-plus samples taken from horses last year, only 47 were found to contain Class 1 or 2 drugs -- those that have been determined to enhance performance and not to have any therapeutic use in horses, or in which the therapeutic effect is outweighed by the performance-enhancing potential.

Most of the commentators at Paulick's site think that the RCI report amounts to a whitewash. To a certain extent they have a point; the report specifically excludes Lasix, which has both therapeutic AND performance-enhancing effects. But the bulk of the criticism seems to be that, well, of course there aren't many positive tests, because the real cheaters are using brand-new designer drugs that can't even be tested for.It's a clever bit of logic; if you can't find the drug in the lab, that just proves that it's there.

I'm not a scientist. Don't even play one on TV. And I had enough trouble understanding all the scientific arguments at last June's "Summit" at Belmont, discussed here. But the extraordinarily low number of positive tests does seem to me to reinforce the impression that I get hanging out on the backstretch of NYRA tracks; most horsemen are serious about their craft and honest, following the rules as best they can. If Lasix is legal, why not use it, as it's clear that it helps a lot of horses run faster. By the way, kudos to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who, with the support of his Darley and Shadwell owners, is trying to go without Lasix for his new two-year-olds. Kiaran's giving up a powerful weapon, but he might gain some valuable knowledge if Lasix is eventually banned.

The state-by-state results in the RCI study are interesting. New York accounted for 15% of all the tests, but many fewer positives, with a positive-test score of only 0.011 percent. For the US as a whole, the rate was 0.49%. Only New Jersey had a lower positive rate than New York, with 0.08%.

At the other end of the spectrum, the positive rate in Minnesota was 3.26% and in Arizona it was 2.54%. Other states with more than  1% of tests returning positives were Colorado, Montana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota (a stunning 7%, but a very small sample size), Ohio, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

Among the other major racing jurisdictions, California reported a positive rate of 0.25%, and Florida was at 0.84%. Kentucky appears to test far fewer horses than either New York or California, and reported that its rate for drug positives exceeded the national average at 0.75%. No surprise there for those who heed the rumors. Kentucky didn't even order a test of Life at Ten after last year's Breeders Cup debacle.

The RCI report doesn't name names and doesn't really address the problem of getting serious with those few trainers who do break the rules. At last report, Dick Dutrow and Patrick Biancone are still racing in New York. A simple, nationwide "three strikes and you're out" policy for Class 1 and 2 drug violations would be a really good idea.

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