The Belmont Stakes, one of the premier events in horse racing, threw a spotlight on the sport on June 5. Yet horse racing remains under a cloud that only seems to grow darker with every positive drug test.
That's a shame because horse racing provides a living for hundreds of thousands of people in the United States, generating $79 billion in wages and benefits.
To survive, horse racing must get its act together and end the proliferation of drugs and mistreatment of animals in the sport.
In March a year ago, there was the indictment of trainers, veterinarians and others in a performance-enhancing drug scandal. Some of those cases have resulted in guilty pleas, some remain in the courts.
Then the Kentucky Derby-winning Medina Spirit tested positive for a prohibited substance and may be disqualified. Millions who bet on other horses are unlikely to get their money back. That's no way to win new customers for the sport, which already has lost popularity in recent years.
It's been a long time since the national frenzy surrounding "America's Horse," Secretariat, who won the Triple Crown in 1973 after a spectacular record-breaking run in the Belmont. That record, by the way, still stands.
For horse racing to survive, let alone grow, the sport needs to clean up its act. Passage of the federal Horse Racing Safety and Integrity Act at the end of last year was a step in the right direction, but the industry shouldn't rely on outside forces to make necessary change.
The industry also is stepping up in many states to limit the use of the whip in races. While many jockeys use the whip sparingly, others are known to wield it continually.
There's no doubt among most analysts that there's a problem with the use of performance-enhancing drugs on horses. Part of the problem is that when drugs that violate the rules are found in a horse's system, the penalties doled out to trainers, veterinarians and grooms usually are minor. Rarely are horses disqualified.
The New York Racing Association took a tough line with trainer Bob Baffert after Medina Spirit's original failed test, suspending him and the horses he trains from Belmont. Churchill Downs has now followed suit with a two-year suspension for Mr. Baffert after Medina Spirit's failed test was confirmed June 2. Such suspensions hit a trainer and the horse owners in the wallet, which may make an impact.
Medina Spirit's positive test was not the first such result for Baffert. He has been fined and sometimes suspended, but he remains a premier trainer in North America.
Baffert may not be guilty of anything ― it could be pure carelessness or negligence in his large operation ― but perception of the sport isn't helped by such findings and the light penalties that typically follow. Perhaps the suspensions are signs of change.
The spotlight on horse racing should be in great races like the Belmont Stakes. Instead, that spotlight all too often shines on the seedy side of the industry.
Cleaning up horse racing, and saving the jobs that go with it, can happen only with a get-tough attitude on drug violations and enhanced concern for animal welfare. The industry can save itself by reform and regulation, or fade away due to loss of trust by fans and loss of interest by the wider public.
This editorial appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was distributed by Tribune Content Agency.