Let’s revisit the U.S. medication penalty structure

Are you aware that the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) has a model rule designed to enhance penalties for individuals whose horses are the subject of repeated positive drug tests?

Did you know that this national model recommendation is so weak that a trainer could, hypothetically, accumulate 80 to 90 positive tests over a 10-year period without suffering a single additional day suspension?

That’s not a misprint. Up to 90 positive tests and no additional time.

More on that in a moment.

Jerry Hollendorfer in the spotlight

The biggest news over the final weekend of Santa Anita Park’s 2019 winter/spring race meet was the banning of Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer from racetracks owned and operated by The Stronach Group (TSG). The banning comes on the heels of CNN’s eight-minute video report, “Santa Anita track owners and trainers under investigation after horse deaths.”

Below in an excerpt of the online story accompanying the video:

Scott Herbertson, a racehorse owner and professional gambler, believes some trainers are going too far.

"You got guys pushing these horses beyond their limits and causing these catastrophic breakdowns," he told CNN at his home in San Francisco's Bay Area.

And he points a finger at Hollendorfer, who in the last eight months has bought three horses that he previously owned. Two of them are now dead. They were badly injured in training or a race and were euthanized.

The CNN report goes on to say that Mr. Hollendorfer has "been sanctioned 19 times by the CHRB since 2006, for overmedication or use of illicit medications on horses.” CNN goes on to state that Mr. Hollendorfer had never been suspended for any of the positive test.

The publicly available ruling information on thoroughbredrulings.com shows the following 14 positive test rulings for Mr. Hollendorfer since 2005:

1/5/2018              Santa Anita                      Phenylbutazone              $2,500

10/21/2017         Golden Gate                      Dexamethasone             $2,500

10/25/2013         Golden Gate                      Phenylbutazone              $500

7/3/2011              Pleasanton                         Methocarbamol             $1,000

10/30/2010         Golden Gate                      Methocarbamol               $500

12/27/2008         Golden Gate                      Phenylbutazone               $1,000

10/19/2007         Bay Meadows                   Phenylbutazone               $1,000

2/10/2007            Golden Gate                      Methocarbamol               $500

3/30/2007            Bay Meadows                   Methocarbamol               $750

7/20/2006            Del Mar                              Phenylbutazone               $750

7/3/2006              Pleasanton                        Phenylbutazone               $1,500

3/2/2006              Golden Gate                      Phenylbutazone                $500

3/1/2006              Golden Gate                      Methocarbamol                 $1,000

11/23/2005         Golden Gate                       Flunixin                               $400

The thoroughbredrulings.com database may not contain all rulings for a specific trainer. Rulings are posted to the database as they are obtained from or provided by commissions or the RCI. The Jockey Club makes no covenants, representations or warranties that the information available in the database is complete, up to date, or accurate.

The horses trained by Mr. Hollendorfer rank him as the trainer with the most fatalities recorded at Santa Anita Park’s race meet. They have accounted for four out of the 30 fatalities. In addition, two more horses trained by Mr. Hollendorfer died recently at the TSG-owned Golden Gate Fields in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A lot of positive tests, but not unusual

When I was the executive director of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission I routinely reviewed records of trainers applying for licensure. I was the only commission staff person vested with the discretionary authority to refuse to license applicants. As a result, I reviewed all such problematic applications for more than 20 years.

Most trainers do not have a dozen or more positive tests on their record. So, Mr. Hollendorfer’s medication violation history is not common, but it is not unusual. Especially for the amount of time he has been in the business.

Let me explain. Every year I would encounter applicants with drug infractions much worse that Mr. Hollendorfer’s. Some of these trainer would have more serious drug infractions. Others would have more positive tests, often in clusters during a narrow window of time.

I would often ask myself when I saw an applicant’s record with several positive tests, “If a trainer’s horses are sent to the test barn after only 20% to 25 % of their starts, how many drugged horses are participating in these races?”

I am confident that almost every racetrack in the country has more than a few trainers with drug infractions substantially worse than Mr. Hollendorfer’s.

Regulators in the spotlight

Regulators in the U.S. have a poor record in dealing with multiple violations for therapeutic medications. I use the term therapeutic medications to differentiate these drugs from those that possess a greater ability to enhance performance. I believe the reluctance to suspend trainers who repeatedly violate therapeutic medication rules enables a mindset that leads to the overmedication of horses.

Simply stated, stiff suspensions for repeated violations would instantly change trainers’ behavior. Paying a fine for a positive test has become a routine cost of doing business for many trainers.

Nothing screams leniency louder than the RCI model rule that purports to crack down on trainers with multiple medication infractions. Let’s take a closer look at the rule.

It’s based on a point system. Every drug positive is given a certain number of points depending on the class of drug. Each drug is place in a certain class that reflects its ability to impact performance. Most positive tests we see in the U.S. are for class 4 drugs. These include most nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as phenylbutazone and flunixin. Methocarbamol, a muscle relaxant, is also a class 4, as are most corticosteroids such as dexamethasone, betamethasone and triamcinolone. These particular class 4 drugs are placed in RCI penalty classification C.

It’s drugs such as these that are most commonly prescribed at racetracks and training centers.

Most often these class 4 drugs positives carry a half point on a trainer’s record. Additional penalties begin when a trainer reaches five points. So, a trainer could have nine positive tests in a year for these common drugs (4.5 points) and serve no additional time.

Oh, but that’s not all.

Each of the class C penalty points expires after a year.

That’s how I got the math at the beginning of this column. A trainer accumulates eight or nine positive tests a year. The penalty points then expire. So, he or she can repeat the same behavior year after year.

So, now you know how it works. How do you feel about it?

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