The chairman of horse racing’s future governing body said the failed drug test of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit shows the need for a uniform set of rules and penalties in place of the sport’s current patchwork system.
In his first public comments since being appointed chairman of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority’s board, Charlie Scheeler said Wednesday that Medina Spirit’s case is instructive for how the sport should be run going forward.
The HISA is set to take effect in July 2022, although early work is underway to “try to make a sport which is safer, which is clean, and which is fair to those who we govern,” Scheeler said on Zoom. “It’s quite a steep climb.”
Scheeler, a retired partner at a Baltimore law firm, worked as lead counsel to former Sen. George Mitchell’s independent investigation of performance-enhancing substance use in Major League Baseball, as well as a monitor of Penn State’s compliance with the NCAA and Big Ten on athletics integrity.
He has turned his attention to cleaning up horse racing, which is mired in its latest drug-related scandal.
Medina Spirit tested positive for the steroid betamethasone after the Kentucky Derby on May 1, and split-sample test results announced Wednesday by the attorney for trainer Bob Baffert confirmed the drug’s presence. Soon after, Churchill Downs announced it was suspending Baffert for two years through spring 2023, prohibiting the seven-time Derby winner from stabling or racing at tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc.
Scheeler said under HISA, a trainer would not be the first to announce a positive test result, as Baffert did in a hastily called gathering outside his barn at Churchill Downs a week after the Derby.
“We’ve got to have a system where it’s the enforcement agency that is describing what happened, what the nature of the violation was, what the significance is and what the penalties will be subject to the due process afforded the alleged violator,” Scheeler said.
He called it “confusing” to the public that certain levels of medications are allowed in some of the 38 U.S. racing states and not others, especially since horses frequently travel and race in multiple states.
“The public is going to know the rules are going to be the same for every Triple Crown race. The tolerances, the permitted substances and testing will be the same,” Scheeler said. “The system doesn’t work unless it’s communicated properly to the public.”
Scheeler favors a tiered system of penalties in racing, similar to Major League Baseball having different penalties for use of steroids and amphetamines.
“Somebody who has been found to violate the rules three times should be penalized more harshly than somebody who has violated one time,” he said.
The biggest difference between racing and other sports is that horses aren’t deciding whether to use substances unlike humans.
“There has to be more of a parentalism here because we can’t tolerate horses being given, for example, painkillers to mask the pain that might have them run beyond what they should be running at,” Scheeler said. “We’ve got to make this sport safer.”
HISA plans to add an investigative unit to help enforce its anti-doping rules and “follow up on the rumors that you hear in the barn or the syringe that is found in the stall,” Scheeler said.
“Some folks just look at it not as should I play fair or not, but a very cold-blooded cost-benefit situation,” he said. “We have to have them see that the cost, or the risks, are greater than the rewards.”
HISA officials met with their counterparts at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency last week.
“I’m absolutely optimistic,” USADA head Travis Tygart said.
Scheeler is taking the long view regarding HISA’s potential impact on racing.
“One of the reasons that horse racing has lost popularity is that many have been turned off by the fact that you have so many horses breaking down,” he said. “A cleaner and fairer sport is also going to be a more popular sport.”