October 2017 | Under Fire, PA Horseracing Initiates Out-of-Competition Testing
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Under Fire, PA Horseracing Initiates Out-of-Competition Testing

Suzanne Bush - October 2017

“What has happened in Pennsylvania recently is disgraceful and sad, especially when you consider that the state is the sixth leading producer of foals and that it hosted approximately 4,000 races and distributed more than $100 million in purses in 2016.” That was The Jockey Club Chairman Stuart Janney III, speaking at the 2017 Jockey Club Round Table Conference in Saratoga in August. Not exactly a stellar endorsement of Pennsylvania’s horseracing industry.

Among the events Janney was referring to was the trial of Penn National-based trainer Murray Rojas. She was accused of numerous violations, including illegally administering banned drugs to horses within 24 hours of races, and conspiring with veterinarians to back-date prescriptions and thus create the appearance that she was complying with the laws pertaining to the administration of certain drugs. In addition, she was accused of administering drugs without the written or verbal direction of a licensed veterinarian.

Rojas was tried in Federal court, because the races in which her horses ran were simulcast and bets were placed on the horses from outside Pennsylvania. So, in addition to the violations of the state’s racing rules, she was also charged with wire fraud, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, misbranding of prescriptions and conspiracy to defraud. In July the jury convicted her of the drug charges, but found her not guilty of the wire fraud and conspiracy charges. Both Rojas and her attorney considered this a victory, since she will not face jail time.

Rojas’ case was unfortunately not an outlier. It was merely the most recent.  In 2016 Parx Racing banned trainer Ramon Preciado from the track after several horses in his care tested positive for Clenbuterol. Stephanie Beattie, another trainer at Penn National, testified at Rojas’ trial that she and nearly all trainers at Penn National routinely drugged horses. Beattie, Rojas and Rojas’ husband Eduardo have now been banned from Penn National.

New Rules Aim to Change the Landscape

In Saratoga Janney summed up Pennsylvania’s embarrassing state of affairs in a withering rebuke. “Uncontradicted testimony described widespread, in fact, nearly universal, cheating; regulators asleep on the job; a corrupted and ineffectual testing system.” While it looks like the industry has a tough road ahead, Pennsylvania’s Horse Racing Commission (PHRC) has created new rules targeting the most egregious problems.

Earlier this year the PHRC launched an out-of-competition testing program similar to those in neighboring states. The program is meant to ensure the integrity of horse racing in Pennsylvania while protecting the welfare of horses. According to the PHRC, out-of-competition testing will:

  • Test the horse for performance enhancing substances that may not otherwise be detected with post-race testing; and
  • Deter the use of these substances.

Horses that are tested are generally selected at random from specific populations. PHRC officials are authorized to take blood, urine or other samples from any horse that “has been engaging in activities related to competing in horse racing in Pennsylvania.” That would include horses that are in training to compete in Pennsylvania, whether they are training inside Pennsylvania or outside the state.

Any horse that is on the grounds of a racetrack in Pennsylvania is eligible for random out-of-competition testing. Horses nominated to a breeder’s award fund or a Standardbred state sires stake are also eligible for testing.

In addition, commission officials may test horses when there is reasonable or probable cause to suspect that the horses are being subjected to banned drugs, or if drugs have been seized on the premises where race horses are stabled, or if a horse’s performance suddenly improves.

The out-of-competition testing protocols have been approved and embraced by the state’s six racetracks as well as the Horsemen’s Associations. All the out-of-competition samples are analyzed at the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology Research Laboratory (PETRL), supervised by Dr. Mary Robinson. 

New Penalties Raise the Stakes

PHRC has published their new rules for out-of-competition testing and defined severe penalties for both trainers who refuse to cooperate, and for those whose horses have positive tests for banned drugs. If a trainer refuses to make a horse available for testing, or interferes in the testing process, the trainer faces a minimum penalty of 180 days suspension plus a $5,000 fine.

A trainer whose horse tests positive for anabolic steroids will face a fine of $5,000, plus a 180-day suspension. And any purse money earned will be forfeited.

A trainer whose horse tests positive for blood doping agents will face a fine of $10,000 plus a 2-year suspension, along with forfeiture of any purse money.

Along with the penalties for trainers, on October 1 the PHRC initiated new restrictions for horses that test positive. Horses that test positive for Class 1 or 2 drugs will be suspended from racing in Pennsylvania for 50 days. Horses that test positive for Class 3 drugs will be suspended from racing in Pennsylvania for 30 days. The Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) includes opiates, psychoactive drugs and amphetamines in Class 1; psychotropic drugs, as well as certain nervous system and cardio stimulants and injectable anesthetics in Class 2; bronchodilators and stimulants in Class 3.

Protecting Horses and the Industry’s Integrity

It’s hard to imagine any state’s legislature ignoring profound enforcement lapses in the pharmaceutical or energy or food service industries. There are economic and health ramifications for the state as well as individual citizens when corporations ignore their fundamental responsibilities. The state’s horseracing industry protects critical open space, provides thousands of jobs, creates revenue and is an entertainment and tourist attraction for citizens of Pennsylvania as well as neighboring states.

In the past two years Pennsylvania has reconfigured the mechanism for government oversight of horseracing. Now they have created new protocols to address the drug abuse that undermines the sport’s integrity. But there were rules before, and there were testing procedures before. Facing scathing criticism from industry leaders outside the state, it’s imperative—at the very least, to protect the horses involved in this sport—that the PHRC assertively and unambiguously enforce the rules.