Former Maryland Jockey Club CEO Joseph A. De Francis watches the Triple Crown races with growing anxiety, worried that an overmedicated horse will collapse in front of millions of viewers, sending the industry's already tenuous fortunes tumbling along with it.
Questions about drugs in the sport have "the potential to explode on the industry like a nuclear bomb," said De Francis, 61, who spent 35 years in the business and once was a partner in Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, which will host the Preakness on Saturday.
Some trainers, owners and industry insiders like De Francis warn the sport needs to adopt a potent, uniform drug policy to replace the state-by-state patchwork of regulations and to persuade a skeptical public to return more often to the grandstand and wager more money.
Performance-enhancing drugs include stimulants to increase speed and anabolic steroids to promote muscle growth. Other drug combinations are intended to combat fatigue. Some of the drugs are legal at certain doses, but critics worry that drugs jeopardize the health of horses.
The state of horse racing today is much like the spindly legged, 1,200-pound thoroughbreds themselves — majestic but alarmingly fragile. De Francis and others in the industry worry that a drugged thoroughbred's fatal misstep could devastate a once-mighty sport that now only gains prominence for five weeks during the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Gambling is what fuels the industry, and the amount of money wagered has dropped precipitously as horse racing faces growing competition from casinos and other distractions.
The so-called racing handle in the United States fell from its peak of $15.1 billion in 2003 to $10.7 billion in 2011 after the recession. It's been flat since then, amounting to $10.6 billion in 2015, according to The Jockey Club, a national industry group that registers thoroughbreds.
In Maryland, the amount wagered on thoroughbred and harness racing and off-track on racing elsewhere plummeted from $519.8 million in 2003 to $173.9 million in 2014, the latest year for which data is available from the Maryland Racing Commission.
There are signs things may be rebounding. At the recently concluded Laurel meet, the average daily handle was $2.3 million — up 34.5 percent from 2015, according to the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico and Laurel and has upgraded facilities, tinkered with the racing calendar, added off-track betting sites and increased race fields.
Still, the Preakness — the second leg of the Triple Crown — remains the big draw. The racing weekend at Pimlico in North Baltimore attracts record crowds lured not only by racing, but concerts, ceremony and the feel of a big event.
The Preakness nets about $7 million to $8 million for the Maryland Jockey Club, which until recently otherwise lost about $1 million in every other month, said Sal Sinatra, the club's general manager. It's recently turned that around some, only losing $1.3 million in all of 2015.
Yet keeping the public interested after Triple Crown season is daunting because "the sports world has become so fragmented and there are so many things to watch and pay attention to," said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert and executive creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.
"And," he added, "I think horse racing has had concerns about doping."
De Francis — now a national Humane Society adviser who advocates for dog welfare legislation and owns a retired racing greyhound — has become a new voice in the debate about horses' health and safety, recently testifying before a congressional committee on the need for uniform oversight.
Others share his concerns. Maryland-based trainers Graham Motion and J. William Boniface, who both have handled Triple Crown race winners, are among the prominent horsemen advocating for less medication and increasing standardization of rules.
"From a trainer's point of view, it's a nightmare," said Motion, who trained 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. "Every time you're racing a horse in a new state, you're going by a different set of rules."
But after years of discussion in state commissions and congressional committees, racing has split into factions over whether drug rules are adequate and — if not — how to fix them.
Boniface, a Harford County horse farm owner who trained 1983 Preakness winner Deputed Testamony, recalled arguing in Annapolis against the use of Lasix — which can reduce bleeding in horses' lungs and cause them to lose weight — and phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory known as "Bute."
"That was 30 years ago," said Boniface, now 74. "And now Bute and Lasix have been used universally in this country, although not abroad. I think you can see that the countries that do not allow race-day medications are going to eventually train a better breed. Years ago, if you had a horse that was a bleeder, you didn't run him."
The sport's image has been tarnished by a succession of medication complaints brought by state racing commissions against a number of well-known trainers, sometimes leading to suspensions or fines. Surveys in recent years — performed by the Daily Racing Form, McKinsey & Co. consultants and others — depict eroding public confidence in the sport's integrity.
In Maryland, 17 trainers were assessed medication-related penalties last year, according to state records. In February 2015, racing authorities announced suspensions for three trainers who ran horses testing positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol in races at Laurel Park. There also were penalties related to Bute and another anti-inflammatory, methylprednisolone, among other drugs.
Compared with other Mid-Atlantic states, Maryland's 17 violations are "either below or right about where everybody else is," said Alan Foreman, chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents horsemen's groups in the region and Illinois.
In 2014, Maryland contracted out its drug testing to a California lab, which found 18 positives among nearly 9,400 samples from horses. That year, the state also adjusted its drug testing program to align it with a uniform program developed within the industry. According to Foreman, most of the 38 states with racing have adopted — or are in the process of adopting — one or more parts of the uniform program.
But critics say there remain important differences in states' approaches — some labs, for example, have limited resources and conduct relatively few drug tests — and they argue the sport needs a well-funded independent oversight body.
Congressional legislation creating such an organization — overseen by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA — to set drug rules and standards is pending in an Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
Opponents argue that such a national approach would usurp states' rights and create an unneeded new layer of bureaucracy.
And there are other concerns. Motion, who was recently assessed his first career medication violation, said he wonders if the anti-doping agency — which deals with human athletes — is the proper forum. Motion is appealing the medication allegation in Florida.
"The biggest thing is to have confidence that USADA will understand how to handle a lot of what we deal with," Motion said. "And it's not plain to me that they will."
On a recent weekday afternoon, dozens of the bill's advocates and opponents crowded into a U.S. Capitol hearing room for debate on the measure. In his testimony, De Francis recounted sitting in his outside box seat at Pimlico in 2006 and watching Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro fracture his right hind leg in three places during the Preakness.
"The only thing that saved the horse racing industry from being absolutely eviscerated by an absolute tsunami of public outrage and bad publicity over the tragic injury to Barbaro was the fact his owners — Roy and Gretchen Jackson — and his trainer, Michael Matz, were people of the very highest integrity who were absolutely beyond reproach," De Francis told the panel.
Veterinarians worked eight months to try to save the horse through a series of surgeries before Barbaro was euthanized. Questions were raised about whether drugs contributed to Barbaro's breakdown, but overmedication wasn't blamed in the incident.
Eric J. Hamelback, an industry group official who testified against national oversight at the hearing, disputed De Francis' logic in an interview.
"Why was he continuing to bring that up?" said Hamelback, CEO of the National Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association, which represents 29,000 horse owners and trainers. "There is no correlation between medication and Barbaro. He kept saying, 'What if it was?' But it wasn't."
Hamelback said he is "100 percent behind a movement toward standardizing and creating uniform policies toward medication" but doesn't believe a national agency is needed because the state racing commissions "are doing a very good job."
The debate is complicated because there is uncertainty about whether some drugs should be considered therapeutic or performance-enhancing — or both — and whether repeated use contributes to breakdowns. For example, many trainers say Lasix allows healthy horses to exert themselves without bleeding. But critics argue Lasix is often used as a performance enhancer — or to mask the presence of other drugs — and that most horses don't need it.
The reaction to Barbaro's death helped shift De Francis' views on the delicate state of the national industry.
"I really had a firsthand, ringside seat at the level of general concern in both the media and the general public," said De Francis, who remained with the Maryland Jockey Club until 2007 and now runs a Columbia-based partnership overseeing family business interests.
This is not the first time De Francis has warned about the possible demise of the industry. Years ago, he lobbied for Maryland to allow slot machines at racetracks to bolster the industry.
When gambling came to the state, it didn't go to the tracks, though the state does subsidize purse subsidies and track improvements with a percentage of casino slots revenues.
Now De Francis worries about the sport's image.
Skepticism of equine medications "is still a major concern among new and current fans," said James Gagliano, president and CEO of The Jockey Club, the national group. "The patchwork system is not sufficient, not for America's legacy sport."
But Foreman, the horsemen's association's chairman, said the industry is making steady progress.
"Racing is a state-sanctioned and state-controlled business, and you're asking 38 states to change the way they've been doing things, and they're doing it," said Foreman, who is also vice chair of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, the industry's medication research arm.
Among the prominent trainers cited — in various states — for medication violations is Doug O'Neill, who trains Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist. After winning the 2012 Preakness with I'll Have Another, O'Neill received a 45-day suspension from California racing officials for running a horse with a high carbon dioxide level in 2010.
He has defended his record vigorously and repeatedly denied "milkshaking," slang for giving horses a concoction of baking soda and other ingredients intended to combat fatigue.
The Maryland Jockey Club doesn't permit trainers under suspension in other states to race horses on its tracks.
Among the trainers still operating in Maryland is Marcus Vitali, who has 34 horses at Laurel yet faces potential sanctions in Florida following a series of medication-related complaints.
Vitali will be permitted to operate in Maryland unless Florida suspends him.
"If it turns out they are going to sanction him, we will reciprocate," said Sinatra of the Maryland Jockey Club.
Reached last week, Vitali said: "I don't think anybody did anything wrong. Everything was a bunch of miscommunication between the horsemen and the way the [Florida medication] rules have changed. I think it will all work itself out."
De Francis and other reform advocates said that having a national oversight body would be simpler than relying on states to work together when their drug policies may diverge.
"All the rules are the same in pro football," said Kevin Boniface, who is William Boniface's son and runs the training division at the family's Harford County horse farm. "Until we have uniform rules, and it's not different from state to state to state, we can't get to the next level."