By: Andy Belfiore
Out-of-competition testing is a hot topic in horse racing. The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and the Association of Racing Commissioners International have been working on a model rule, and several state racing commissions, most notably the California Horse Racing Board, already have out-of-competition testing programs in place.
But one such program that gets little fanfare—it’s not even included in the ARCI statistics—is that of the New York Racing Association. Launched in 2008, NYRA’s in-house endeavor conducts between 1,000 and 1,400 tests each year.
NYRA Steward Braulio Baeza Jr., son of the Hall of Fame jockey, oversees the project. Explaining its genesis, he said: “We had a pre-race detention barn for five years, but it wasn’t the industry standard, and it was a hardship on the horsemen and the horses. When we got rid of it, we negotiated with the horsemen, who agreed to random out-of-competition testing.
“It was important to do something. Whenever you have a trainer winning at a high percentage, there is suspicion. NYRA’s out-of-competition testing program helps to maintain the integrity of New York racing.”
There are two prongs to the out-of-competition attack. The first focuses on stakes, while the second employs a discretionary approach.
“We test most of the graded stakes,” Baeza said. “For the grade I races, we work with the state—they test some, we test the rest.”
NYRA takes advantage of The Jockey Club’s Graded Stakes Out-of-Competition Testing Grant Fund, which reimburses racetracks for tests conducted on nominees to graded stakes, provided the samples are collected no closer than seven days prior to the race.
“For the major stakes—the Belmont, Travers, Met Mile—we’re looking at the nomination sheets, and we’re testing all the horses that we know are running, and anyone that we think might be running,” said Martin Panza, NYRA’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations. “When you get to the stallion-making races, the big money races, all those horses are done. We use (The Jockey Club) funding to help supplement what we do, and then we do 1,000 tests at NYRA’s expense.”
Those samples constitute the random portion of the program, and the element of surprise works well as the proverbial “ounce of prevention.”
“I think NYRA’s program is a deterrent,” Baeza said. “There is no set schedule. We test different days, different barns. Trainers are aware that we can come by at any time, and they are cooperative. They know we do the graded stakes, but we also test claiming horses, and we test 2-year-olds, looking for steroid use.
“We are looking for any Class 1 medication—those are strictly prohibited, they have no therapeutic use in the horse. We look for blood-doping agents like EPO (Erythropoietin), we are looking for cobalt. We want to prevent the use of the substances that wouldn’t show up on race day.”
NYRA also keeps an eye out for situations that might cause concern.
“We look for patterns,” Panza said. “If a horse shows a huge form reversal, or if a trainer gets hot all of a sudden, we might go into that barn. When people think, ‘Well, he must be using something,’ this program gives us an effective tool to make sure the trainer is not using something. “
NYTHA and New York’s horsemen are in full support of NYRA’s out-of-competition testing program.
“This program helps to protect our owners and trainers from those who might try to take an illegal edge,” NYTHA President Rick Violette Jr. said. “It also serves to instill confidence in the bettors, and makes New York’s racing product more appealing. Everyone involved in New York racing benefits from a judicious out-of-competition testing policy.”
Down the road, NYRA would like to see the New York State Gaming Commission take the reins in this area.
“In a perfect world, the state would be handling out-of-competition testing—in all states,” Panza said. “It would be best if regulators were running the program. Hopefully we are working toward that, but until that is accomplished, NYRA will do our part.”
Said Baeza: “We want to keep the playing field level, and we want it to be known that we are doing this testing, to put our bettors and our horsemen at ease, knowing we are working to protect the integrity of the sport.”