American horse racing is increasingly admonished in the mainstream media over legal and illicit drugs. The impression conveyed to the public during the recent Triple Crown season was that the sport is permissive.

But how does horse racing really stack up against the foremost U. S. professional sports leagues on the twin elements of drug policy–testing and meting out of sanctions for transgressions?

Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have adopted “reasonable cause” testing policies, whereby a player can be checked at any time if someone in authority infers he may be using a forbidden drug. The National Football League’s collective bargaining agreement limits to four the number of times a player can be tested annually and permits game-day testing of performance-enhancing drugs but not recreational drugs. The National Hockey League states “Every player will be subject to two ‘no-notice’ tests every year…”

When benchmarked against the forgoing drug-testing practices, horse racing’s standards and procedures are very rigorous. The Association of Racing Commissioners International accurately states: “Horse racing’s anti-doping program tests for more substances at deeper levels than any other professional sport”–and the organization provides data to back up its claim. In addition, some game-day medications that are allowed in the professional sports leagues are verboten in horse racing.

While the American racing industry is a cut above other sports on drug testing, it is arguably worse when it comes to enforcing uniform and timely penalties for drug positives, especially for flagrant offenders. The punitive facet of drug policy is inhibited by multiple racing jurisdictions and often-protracted appeals processes that enable habitual offenders to continue to sully the sport’s image.

Professional sports leagues have quantified the consequences for drug-policy offences that are generally harsher than in horse racing. Measures have become more severe in recent years due to scandals over alleged and proven substance abuse by some superstars.

To illustrate, In MLB, a player’s fourth conviction for the use of a prohibited substance has a minimum two-year suspension and a third positive result for steroids carries a lifetime ban. However, such sentences typically have loopholes. For instance, the NHL allows a banned player to appeal a supposedly permanent exile once two years’ time has passed.

Horse racing is held to a high standard on drugs for two entirely different and valid reasons: bettors are entitled to fairly decided outcomes and the welfare of equine athletes depends on the care provided by their handlers.

Drug-related news items that damage racing’s standing with the public and lessen its commercial appeal arise largely from the sport’s apparent leniency towards serial violators of regulations and the prolonged infighting over the race-day use of furosemide. Significant progress on these fronts would greatly diminish the notoriety that detractors seize upon to condemn the sport.

Copyright © 2012 Horse Racing Business

Originally published in the Blood-Horse. Used with permission.