For five years, a bill that would place the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in charge of fighting illicit drug use in horse racing went nowhere in Congress. In 2020, it finally passed — but that milestone came too late to resolve the crisis that enveloped the sport and its latest Kentucky Derby winner this week.
In the doping world, positive tests traditionally have to be corroborated by a “B” sample — in this case, a separately held specimen of the same blood sample that came back positive. It could take weeks for Kentucky authorities to get results from that sample, but authorities in Maryland and at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, where the Preakness is held, have been on a more urgent timeline. They had to decide whether to allow Medina Spirit to the post Saturday.
“The takeaway from this is that, right now, we’re in this cloud of uncertainty,’” said Bill Lear, a Kentucky attorney who was a key architect of the law that was passed last year. “You don’t know a lot of things you’d like to know, and we’re coming up on the second race of the Triple Crown.”
Because of the uncertainty, horse racing powers in Maryland were forced to weigh the specter of legal action that could come if they oust the horse against the cloud of suspicion that would exist if they let him run. Their decision was to let Medina Spirit run, albeit with an additional layer of testing scheduled for earlier in the week.
All this comes against the backdrop of a sport built for gambling. Millions of dollars will be wagered Saturday on a race that could include a horse less than two weeks removed from a failed drug test. Those who won (or lost) money on Medina Spirit in the Derby needn’t worry — there will be no returns, despite the now-murky nature of the victory.
“You can’t get the money back, and I don’t think anyone’s going to succeed in challenging that,” Lear said. “But the fact that wagers are paid immediately after the races are official heightens the need to do everything possible to not have a[n antidoping] violation skew the results of a race.”
The Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act that passed last December goes into effect in July 2022. If it were in play right now, many of these issues could have been resolved before Saturday by USADA, the organization most famous for taking down Lance Armstrong, and one that is expected to handle testing for the thoroughbred industry as a whole once the law is in effect.
“Under our program, we expedite the B-sample analysis and the legal process to ensure a decision is made before the next major competition,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said, while refusing to speak specifically about the Medina Spirit case.
Lear, who also did not speak specifically about Medina Spirit, says a strengthened testing system that included more out-of-competition testing, the likes of which will be coming under the new law, could have set up the possibility “that maybe a horse doesn’t even make it to the starting line” if it is found to be violating rules.
Baffert, the seven-time winner of the Kentucky Derby who has a long record of horses testing positive for performance enhancers, said he supported the new law.
“I’d welcome Travis Tygart,” said the trainer, who will stay away from Pimlico this week, even though his horse will be there.
To which Tygart, in an email exchange with The Associated Press, responded: “Great, we are ready to dive in and help clean it up.”
Because state authorities have regulated gambling for decades in the United States, most rules related to horse racing have been handled in the same way. It has led to a balkanized and confusing set of statutes that are different in all 50 states.
Lear, whose Lexington, Kentucky, law firm represents The Jockey Club and The Breeders’ Cup among other horse interests, has helped to draft bills designed to streamline the racing industry’s anti-doping policies. The first was introduced to Congress in 2015. It stalled. The same thing happened in 2016, and pretty much every year since.
“There are a lot of folks who are very entrenched in the status quo,” Lear said, in explaining why the bill never went very far.
Not until more than three dozen on-track horse deaths at Santa Anita Park in California rocked the industry in 2018-2019 did federal lawmakers get serious about passing a law. Then, last year, the movement picked up more steam when 29 trainers, veterinarians and pharmacists were indicted on federal charges in a horse doping ring.
Though the law is not being universally embraced in horse circles — at least two groups are challenging the law in court — Lear takes solace in the fact that it passed with bipartisan support.
And though the law goes into effect too late to solve any of this week’s problems, Tygart said the current case serves a purpose in that it further illustrates “the perfect storm that has been brewing for years” in horse racing.