New York in recent years has doled out violations for drug use in horse racing at a lower rate than other states across the country, according to a Times Union analysis of horse racing violations in 14 states.
The findings reveal that from 2016 through 2020, New York issued the lowest rate of drug violations compared to the other states and far fewer than major racing hubs such as Kentucky, California and Florida.
New York also had by far the lowest rate of thoroughbred drug violations — the Times Union analyzed data for that breed in isolation and controlled for the amount of racing in each state.
Numerous industry insiders said the unprecedented analysis raises questions about the level of illicit drug use in New York horse racing and the ability — or willingness — of state regulators to identify and prosecute violators.
The New York Gaming Commission, which regulates horse racing, issued about five drug violations for every 10,000 starts by a race horse, the Times Union found during the 5-year period examined. (A start is when a horse leaves the starting gate in a race.)
All other states had more drug violations per 10,000 starts than New York did; most states issued drug violations between two and nearly 15 times New York’s rate. Florida had the highest rate at 73 drug violations per 10,000 starts.
Industry experts and horse racing participants interviewed by the Times Union did not have a consensus opinion for why New York’s drug violation figures are out of line with other states surveyed. But some offered theories for what could be at play, including stiffer penalties in New York as a deterrent to drug use. Others said small variations in drug regulations and laboratory procedures might be influencing the data.
Some sources said that many successful trainers with better horses race in New York, reducing sloppy medicating that can lead to a violation.
Scott Palmer, the New York Gaming Commission’s equine medical director, said the state has performed similar analyses comparing New York’s drug violations to some states in the mid-Atlantic region and also found New York had the lowest rate of violations.
Palmer said he believes New York issues drug violations at lower rates than other states because the state has unique rules that ban the use of certain drugs during specific windows of time before race day, something called “restricted administration times.”
New York is the only state that uses those rules widely, said Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International.
The Times Union spent more than six months examining the horse racing industry in New York and beyond, conducting dozens of interviews with key stakeholders, from trainers, owners, scientists, investigators, track operators and lawmakers to advocates who believe the sport is cruel and should be shut down. The newspaper also sifted through court records and reviewed data sets on testing, injuries, equine deaths, taxpayer subsidies, enforcement and more.
In contrast, other states may forbid the use of the same drugs in certain quantities and issue advisories, including how long before race day trainers should stop using them. Palmer called those advisories “helpful but less definitive” than New York’s rules that clearly stipulate that use of a substance in a certain time period could trigger a violation.
“The other states have been reluctant to give a bright line like that,” Palmer said. “New York has gone above and beyond to protect people from getting positive tests.”
Patrick Cummings, executive director of the Thoroughbred Ideas Foundation, suggested that objective is problematic.
“Our rules should be to help horses; not eliminate positives,” Cummings said. “We should be protecting all of the participants, not trying to eliminate penalties or suspensions.”
Although some horses and trainers race in multiple states, horse racing regulations differ by state. There are significant overlaps, but the variations include how many samples are collected for drug testing, the testing procedures used by drug laboratories and the penalties issued.
States don’t always share information with one another about drug violations, so even when they want to apply reciprocity, it doesn’t always happen, said Rick Arthur, former equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board and former head of the University of California, Davis’s equine drug testing program. For the public, tracking data on drug violations is even harder.
It’s also not fully known whether horse racing participants are using drugs to cheat at similar rates in different states. Regulators only know about what they can catch through drug testing and state investigations, both of which have shortcomings.
Arthur said in California they found horse racing participants in different areas of the state and across multiple types of racing have been cited for violations at varying rates and involving myriad substances. It makes sense to expect similar variations across the country, he said.
Cummings, who leads a thoroughbred nonprofit advocating for changes on behalf of owners and bettors, disagreed. He said bettors believe the frequency of drug use is similar across the country.
“I believe horse players (bettors) view it as all the same — that one circuit is not necessarily cleaner or has more violations than another,” said Cummings. “No one stays in Saratoga all year. Horsemen bring their horses up to Saratoga and then they go back to Kentucky. … Horses in the New York circuit race in Florida in the winter … and the Florida figures are very different than the New York figures.”
The crowd watches a race at the Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs in August.
A new federal entity called the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority may eliminate the state-by-state differences when it gets off the ground in the next year or so.
Some in the industry have embraced the change.
“Because of the substandard regulatory scheme for racing in the United States it is difficult to assess the quality of one state’s regulation versus another,” said Shannon Luce, a spokeswoman for the Jockey Club, the leading U.S. thoroughbred organization. “We concluded this long ago, which is why we supported a wholesale change of the oversight of anti-doping, medication control, and safety to one unified private organization operating under the authority of the U.S. government. That is HISA.”
But others oppose HISA. The U.S. Trotting Association, the nation’s top standardbred group, and state racing commissions in Oklahoma and West Virginia, as well as other groups, have sued to block the implementation of HISA. Joe Faraldo, the chairman of the USTA, told the Times Union his organization supports national regulations for standardbred racing as long as they’re breed-specific and not “stupid.”
A longtime racing participant and attorney who has defended trainers from drug violation charges, Faraldo said he believes New York’s low rate of drug violations in recent years reflects how other states are listing positive results for low levels of therapeutic drugs that “couldn’t affect a mouse or a fly.”
“This lab in New York is not wasting time on irrelevant calls on therapeutic medications that have no pharmacological effect,” Faraldo said. “These other jurisdictions in my opinion are not doing the right thing.”
The Times Union’s analysis showed all states generally reported more violations involving the use of therapeutic medications that are permitted in some contexts than infractions for illegal drugs or substances banned in racing. Arthur said most of the therapeutic medication violations he’s seen are “mistakes” that occur when barns have new staff members dispensing medications or horses’ stalls are switched and their treatments are mixed up.
The newspaper’s analysis also considered drug violations for the types of horse racing in each state, primarily thoroughbred, standardbred and quarter horse racing. The analysis used a metric of violations per start to measure the rate of infractions to control for differences in the amount of racing state by state.
The Times Union also specifically examined thoroughbred racing — considered by many the most elite form of horse racing and which draws millions of fans, including for the Triple Crown races: the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Preakness Stakes. When looking at thoroughbred racing alone, New York again was an outlier for its low rate of drug violations per start.
For the five-year period ending in 2020, New York issued about three drug violations for every 10,000 starts by a thoroughbred race horse, the Times Union found.
In contrast, Kentucky had about 20 drug violations for the same number of starts, while Florida had 45. The jurisdiction with the most violations per 10,000 starts was Oregon with 49. In fact, only New York had fewer than 12 drug violations per 10,000 thoroughbred starts.
In the five-year period examined by the newspaper, New York regulators identified 205 drug violations in standardbred and thoroughbred racing combined. There were 34 drug violations among thoroughbred race horses in that period.
Six of those 34 thoroughbred violations were not the result of findings made by New York authorities; they were violations issued to individuals after they were indicted in 2020 as part of a sweeping U.S. Justice Department investigation.
Among the remaining violations, just two drug infractions were issued at Saratoga Race Course from 2016 through 2020.
In August 2018, the New York Gaming Commission suspended trainer Randi Persuad for 20 days for possessing vials of injectable controlled substances at Saratoga Race Course. At the time, Persuad told an industry publication, Daily Racing Form, that the box of injectable medications was delivered to his barn by mistake.
Eighteen days later, trainer Joseph Lostritto was fined $1,000 by the commission for possession of hypodermic equipment and controlled substances at Saratoga, violation data shows. Both trainers had raced horses in claiming races at Saratoga that August prior to the violations being issued, according to Equibase.
At the other tracks operated by the New York Racing Association (NYRA), Belmont Park had four violations during those years and Aqueduct Racetrack had eight. Meanwhile, Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack had 14.
NYRA declined to comment on the Times Union’s findings regarding New York’s low rate of drug violations compared to other states, referring the matter to the Gaming Commission. Patrick McKenna, the organization’s spokesman, has said there is no place in horse racing for cheaters who use banned or illegal substances and that NYRA uses “every resource at our disposal to stop and expose those who attempt to break the rules.”
Horses exercise as the sun rises at the Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs in August.
Currently, there is no central repository of data accessible to the public that allows for horse racing drug enforcement to be compared state by state.
To perform its analysis, the Times Union requested data on equine drug violations from 35 state regulatory commissions, reflecting all states with recent horse racing.
Data on violations was collected from those requests and from public records posted by racing regulatory agencies in 19 states: Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and West Virginia. Several other states shared data, but the information was not provided in a way that allowed for uniform comparison to other states’ data. A handful of states declined to provide any data.
Generally, each violation indicates a horse was found to have one drug or medication in its body in a quantity, or at a time, that was not permitted by state regulations.
State regulators issue penalties based on the violations identified. Penalties ranged from warnings to indefinite bans from racing, but typically included suspensions for a period of days or weeks, fines of a few hundred or thousands of dollars and the loss of race purses.
The patchwork regulation among states creates variation in the rules governing the use of drugs and medications across the country. Most states regulate the same list of drugs and share a common list of substances that are prohibited at all times. But they may have some variations in the quantity, called the threshold, that triggers a positive result, Martin said.
Various state labs may also have different screening limits — the point at which a lab will affirmatively say whether a drug was detected, Martin explained. Testing technology is so sensitive that screening limits, set by labs, distinguish between a minute trace of a substance that may have come from the environment and a definitive presence of a drug. The screening limits can also affect what is called a “drug positive” in various states.
When asked about the Times Union’s analysis, George Maylin, head of the New York Equine Drug Testing and Research Laboratory, alleged that some states are calling positives for drugs that he believes had no pharmacological effect or have been making “mistakes” with their testing.
“Talk is cheap, but we stand by what we do,” Maylin said.
Dr. George Maylin, director of the New York Equine Drug Testing and Research Laboratory, pulls historic data from reports at his lab in Ithaca. The lab performs drug testing for thoroughbred and harness races held throughout the state.
In another story that is part of an examination of horse racing that was published last month, the Times Union found that New York’s drug lab, one the most advanced in the country, struggled to identify and test for some performance-enhancing drugs believed to be in use by the industry. A lack of funding by the state has also limited the lab’s research and the amount of testing performed, Maylin said.
Palmer said New York’s equine drug laboratory has one of the largest research budgets in the country, receiving $500,000 per year.
Rick Goodell, who was associate counsel to the New York Gaming Commission — and its predecessor, the Racing and Wagering Board — from 1999 to 2021, said New York drives down the number of violations because it applies tougher penalties on cheaters than other states.
The indefinite suspensions of the trainers and veterinarians indicted two years ago by federal authorities in Manhattan remain an anomaly. That criminal case involved more than two dozen defendants charged with offenses relating to systematic and covert use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in race horses competing across the United States and overseas.
The most significant penalty issued by New York during a five-year period beginning in 2016 was the 20-year suspension given to standardbred trainer Michael Temming after two of his horses tested positive for a blood doping agent called iOX2 in races at Yonkers Raceway, according to the data. Maylin’s laboratory is believed to be the first to successfully screen for and confirm the presence of iOX2.
Goodell agreed with Palmer that New York’s clear advisories to trainers on when to stop using a drug before race day to avoid a positive test makes a big difference in trainers’ ability to comply — and to avoid having horses test positive for drugs.
“This approach has only been possible in New York because our lab director has an equine pharmacology doctorate, and has conducted a large number of his own tests with horses to help him know exactly what to use as a laboratory threshold. It is unique to New York,” Goodell said. “Other states have drug thresholds without reliable time-of-administration guidelines. Trainers are left to guess, or to go by guidelines that warn that relying on them might not prevent a positive.”
Thoroughbred trainer Mark Casse said, in his experience, he does not believe that states’ drug “withdrawal time” advisories have affected the practices of trainers. He said drug use might be less in New York than other states because many New York races boast some of the largest purses in the sport and thus attract the best horses in the world — horses who don’t need illicit drugs to perform at top levels.
“These are the biggest trainers in the world,” Casse said. “They have reputations to keep and, for the most part, they play by the rules. They are careful about what they do, and they do play by the rules.”
But Casse speculated that across the country, increasing drug testing in horse racing would result in more violations being detected.
New York is among 21 states that perform some out-of-competition testing on horse racing, said Martin, who joined the Association of Racing Commissioners International in 2005. Out-of-competition testing can result in a drug violation if regulators find that a race horse has been given a substance that is never allowed under state rules. Some industry sources said out-of-competition testing can help decrease the number of violations overall because the increased and random surveillance makes cheaters more cautious.
The Times Union found some states that perform out-of-competition testing, including California and Kentucky, still have far higher rates of drug violations per start than New York does, however.
Other states, including California, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Iowa and Indiana, also do condition testing of hair samples from quarter horses for entry into races, said Janet VanBebber, chief racing officer for the American Quarter Horse Association. New York does not have quarter horse racing.
Alice Allen, who trained standardbred and thoroughbred horses in New York for decades and has testified before the state Legislature about issues in the industry, alleges New York regulators have intentionally concealed positive tests or declined to issue violations in some cases, to the benefit of high-profile trainers. She has claimed some horse racing participants who reported issues surrounding drug use to racing authorities have been ignored or faced retribution.
“New York Gaming has failed to protect the public integrity of the sport of racing, and they knew it all the way to the second floor,” she said, referring to the governor’s office at the state Capitol.
Brad Maione, the state gaming commission’s spokesman, disputed the allegation of selective enforcement, saying, “The commission has a standard operating procedure to ensure all medication findings are treated alike.”
He noted that the equine drug laboratory is not aware of the identity of the horse or the trainer for the samples they analyze; every positive is reported to the commission, which launches an investigation into the drug use and holds a hearing before rendering a decision on a violation, including any penalty.
Analyzing national or multi-state data on race horse drug violations remains exceedingly difficult for the public, despite efforts to improve transparency from within the industry. The Jockey Club maintains the data on thoroughbreds, but its website’s design makes it virtually impossible to get a sense of broad trends concerning violations.
The website is also riddled with duplicate entries, missing information and errors. The Jockey Club declined requests to share its complete data sets.
“With regards to the thoroughbred rulings database, it is provided by The Jockey Club as a service to the industry,” said Luce, the Jockey Club’s spokeswoman. “The data included is what we receive from the different racing jurisdictions. If you have questions about accuracy or duplication, you would need to ask them of the specific jurisdiction.”
The Association of Racing Commissioners International, the umbrella organization for state regulatory authorities, maintains a similar database that its members can access. ARCI makes some but not all of its data available to the public and declined a Times Union request for the complete records.
“The ARCI operates on limited resources to provide services for our members who maintain regulatory authority on drug testing, results management, adjudication, and penalties. While we do have the capacity to generate system wide reports and do so periodically, the individual members have not required of us the granular analysis the Times Union has requested,” Martin said. “Unlike the ‘opensecrets.org’ website that aggregates publicly available data about money in politics into a one stop site, the various interest groups in racing have not funded a similar effort, and frankly the remaining racing media doesn’t have the money to do it either.”
HISA is expected to implement new national data collection standards on drug use and other issues in horse racing when it gets off the ground. A spokesperson for HISA declined to provide more specific details about those plans at this time.
Emilie Munson is a data reporter for the Times Union. She previously covered federal politics in Washington, D.C., for the Times Union and Hearst Connecticut Media. Emilie also has worked as a state capitol reporter for Hearst Connecticut Media and as an education reporter for the Greenwich Time.
Matt Rocheleau is an editor overseeing data and investigative projects for the Times Union and Hearst Connecticut Media Group. He previously worked for a decade as a reporter for The Boston Globe, where he was a member of the Spotlight Team and led a project that won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.