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New York Times wins Bergstein Award for story on veterinarians

Barry Irwin (right) presents $25,000 to Dr. Dionne Benson of the RMTC and Jeff Lowe displays unclaimed Stan Bergstein trophy  (Photo by Z)

Team Valor International on Tuesday honored a New York Times story on the role of veterinarians in the use of drugs in horse racing as the first winner of the Stan Bergstein Writing Award.

The September 21 piece "At the Track, Racing Economics Collide With Veterinarians' Oath" by Walt Bogdanich, Joe Drape and Rebecca Ruiz received two first-place votes from the four-judge panel of long-time Los Angeles Times Turf writer Bill Christine, Sports Illustrated senior writer and NPR commentator Frank Deford, Turf writer and nine-time Eclipse Award winner Bill Nack, and Las Vegas Review-Journal Turf writer Richard Eng.

The story (link) examines the wide-spread use of drugs for horses to race and win in the United States, often with perilous results, in spite of the veterinarian's oath to "protect animal health and welfare," and was part of a series that scrutinized the prevalence of injury and lack of effective regulation in American racing.

Barry Irwin, CEO of Team Valor, instituted the Stan Bergstein Writing Award last November after Bergstein died at age 87. Bergstein was a major player in harness racing for 50 years as an executive, advocate, writer and announcer, and he wrote extensively in recent years on the common ills of Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing in a regular column for Daily Racing Form. Irwin named the $25,000 writing award in Bergstein's honor to encourage and reward substantive writing on racing's issues.

With Bergstein's son, Al, in attendance this morning at a luncheon at the Thoroughbred Club of America in Lexington, Kentucky, Irwin saluted the New York Times piece as a worthy inaugural award winner.

"While I cannot say for certain that we were in any way responsible for a nominated piece being written, our hope is that by bringing them to a wider reading audience, we will encourage this type of writing to flourish anew in the sport of horse racing," Irwin said. "The New York Times story was the third in a series. I think I am speaking for a large contingent of horse racing folk when I say that the first two pieces in the Times series presented a largely distorted view of racing that disappointed many of us badly.

"On the other hand, I am certain that a fair minded group of people would feel that the authors hit the nail squarely on the head in their award-winning third piece. They did a thoroughly professional job in presenting the conflicts with vets dispensing drugs to racehorses on a daily basis."

According to Drape, a New York Times editorial policy prevents him and his colleagues from accepting the award, in the interest of neutrality.

Irwin selected the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) to instead receive the $25,000. Executive Director Dr. Dionne Benson accepted the check this morning for the Lexington-based non-profit organization, which lists supporting and furthering integrity in racing as its primary goal.

Benson noted that Bergstein was an RMTC board member for a number of years and helped bring harness racetracks into the organization.

"The $25,000 will go quite a long way to fulfilling the spirit of the award," Benson said. "In listening to the speakers today, I felt I didn't really need to say much because you said it all for us. We are in a challenging time, definitely one in which we have drugs at the forefront. The recent McKinsey report said that drugs can be very damaging to this sport if we continue to allow them to pervade the culture and be the front-page story about racing."

Benson said the consortium has made recent strides in increasing withdrawal times for therapeutic drugs and will soon issue new rules for the use of corticosteroids.

"I think you'll see that the goal with our regulations is to cause an overall shift in the way we do business with drugs in our industry," she said.

Barry Irwin and Team Valor's Jeff Lowe selected seven finalists for the award. The other first-place votes went to the Paulick Report's Ray Paulick for a story on horse slaughter and to Bunny Hinzman for a blog entry on Lasix. Hinzman, a 16-year-old, also received two honorable mentions from the four judges.

Nack, the author of the definitive book about Secretariat, this morning described his long ties with Bergstein dating back to the 1950s, when as a teenager he cared for one of Bergstein's Standardbreds at a layup facility in Illinois. Nack said Bergstein was one of his few supporters within racing in 1993 when he wrote a major piece on the use of raceday drugs for Sports Illustrated.

"It's a kill the messenger mentality that continues to this day," Nack said. "I'm glad to see support for this kind of important writing."

Billy Reed, another Sports Illustrated alum and long-time columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader and Louisville Courier-Journal, spoke at length about the importance of writing about racing's issues.

"In racing, pro-active is not part of the lexicon," Reed said. "We have to wait until there is a scandal and then we go around trying to cover it up. That has to change. I think Stan Bergstein, if he were here today, would have felt the same way. Mr. Irwin, thank you so much for establishing this award to honor a great individual and hopefully to try to perpetuate change. I hope you get tons and tons of entries in the future, because that would mean that people are trying to do what they can to make racing the best that it can be."

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