Op-Ed: The Transparent Republic of Horse Racing
Thoroughbred racing may have a conundrum regarding drug testing: transparency.
Updated: June 10, 2020 • 11:20 AM EST
Drug testing in Thoroughbred racing isn't as transparent as may be necessary.
Have you ever heard of the Raines Law? It’s not a historical topic covered in a U.S. History survey course, but it ought to be.
In late 19th century Gilded Age America, a group of reformers, snidely dubbed “Goo-Goos” (those that believed in "good governance"), looked out their windows and watched in amazement as their society ran amok. Alcoholism was one flashpoint, and New York State believed that the Raines Law was the answer to solve problems like the breakup of families, disorderly conduct and just general debauchery.
Since most labored six days a week amid horrid factory conditions, outlawing liquor sales on Sundays seemed sensible — known historically as "blue laws." Only New York hotels received a pass. So, in order to consume, you had to be a guest, and the inn’s bar had to serve food.
Watering holes saw room for “interpretation.” Bending rules, they added upstairs shanties (10 were needed) and tossed bread with rubber meat on the tables, or bricks inside to qualify for food service. Police looked the other way.
Instead of the Raines Law alleviating ills, it led to an uptick in more drinking; and with all those accessible rooms just up from the stools, a rise in prostitution. Lesson: intentions spawned exploitation, and the Goo-goos’ plans backfired. Point: the story of the Raines Law reoccurs time and time again within the art of governing.
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This past week, the Paulick Report reported that the Arkansas Racing Commission is in the process of re-testing samples from, allegedly, two of Bob Baffert's horses. At this point, we are unsure which ones they are, but it could be Charlatan or Nadal (who was just retired after an injury), the respective winners of both divisions of their signature event, the Arkansas Derby. Lidocaine was “supposedly” found, and testing is being sent to a second lab, etc. etc… (you can read a bevy of articles from other turf writing sources, including the Louisville Courier Journal, etc. on this subject)
But through the process of reporting, something slipped by that reminds me of the lesson of the Raines Law. See, within the regulations and careful practices of the Arkansas Racing Commission, there’s this specific mandate that all results from any tests must stay “confidential.”
How is it that a state organization, paid for by the fine taxpayers of Arkansas, can claim to keep something out of the public eye? Doesn’t that seem counterintuitive, especially if eager couriers bandy information about, thus leading to a waterfall of speculation and innuendo?
Before we answer those queries, let’s head to the horse’s mouth because it is posted front-and-center at the head of their website.
The mission of the Arkansas State Racing Commission is to regulate thoroughbred and greyhound racing in the State of Arkansas, as provided in the enabling legislation; whereby, the best interests of the State and its citizens are preserved and protected.
What constitutes “the best interests,” anyway?
In a DRF article, Byron Freeland, attorney for the Arkansas Racing Commission, said he “couldn’t comment at all” about Charlatan or any other potential positive test at Oaklawn. Isn’t that a red herring on behalf of the Racing Commission, after the damage is already done?
It does not really matter who is behind the leak, though it’s a disservice nonetheless. Rather, it just means that the Arkansas Racing Commission does not have the ability to protect information and cannot defend the sport. Mind you, this is an institution whose budget and very marrow, regardless of subsidies from other sources, makes it a public entity.
Would shielding evidence and purporting some legal jargon like “confidentiality” be in the best interest of the people?
Here in lies the rub. Remember that during that two-division running of the Arkansas Derby back in early May, something was off with some tests. But more importantly, isn’t it odd that the most celebrated modern race horse trainer in the world, Baffert incarnate, played a major factor? Enemies of the sport reveled to be sure, and able to argue…see, see.
This is an oft-told story in horse racing — a public institution fights for “good governance,” all the while playing by arcane rules — in this case, fiddling while Baffert’s Barn burns. If something is going to be leaked because members associated with it cannot maintain strict levels of confidentiality, doesn’t that constitute a breach?
Maybe trying transparency would be a much more efficient approach?
Instead of indirectly promoting sensational headlines that hurt the sport, why not professionally and directly publish the names of those trainers whose horses are being tested? Instead, splitting hairs over which issues are “private” and those that could be “public” promotes rampant confusion.
Ending loose lips is paramount. Wouldn’t that lead to more direct oversight and self-policing of those that could be possible suspects? Besmirching can be done tastefully, backed legally, and not through “unnamed sources.”
Returning to the historical example of the Raines Law, the best intentions do not always lead to a successful result. In an age of 24/7 newsfeeds, tweets infused with malice and lobbies invectively aiming toward the end of Thoroughbred racing, all rage against that which is meant to protect.
Regulation means protecting the public interest, but at what cost? A system that impugns its own, all the while masquerading in the guise of progress and ol’ fair shakes, only damages our survival.
Clearly, if Thoroughbred racing has the desire to entice new supporters and simultaneously retain its base, it cannot conduct itself in the manner that the Arkansas Racing Commission just did.
True reform would turn confidentiality into transparency; thus, proffering more for our sport. That’s good governance in the republic of horse racing.
J.N. Campbell is a turf writer whose work has appeared in several publications, including Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, ThoroCap and Past the Wire.