A controversial ruling by the commission that governs harness racing in Atlantic Canada has prompted calls for more transparency and better oversight of an industry which receives millions of taxpayer dollars and gambling revenues each year.
The controversy stems from the Atlantic Provinces Harness Racing Commission’s handling of a recent horse drug violation case involving P.E.I.’s Marc Campbell, one of the region’s top harness racing drivers and trainers.
Gary Fraser, a long-time race horse owner and past trainer and driver in Nova Scotia, says the case has created division and frustration in the harness racing community.
“It kind of puts a black mark on the industry because of the way [the commission] handled it,” Fraser said.
“I was on [P.E.I.] from the 6th to the 9th of October for the sale and the races. And good God, you even mentioned it to anybody, they’d get right into a big uproar, talking about it … All [the commission] did was just make the public more suspicious about the racing game.”
An indefinite suspension, ultimately lifted
In early September, Campbell was hit with an indefinite suspension by the commission after horses he trained produced four positive post-race drug tests in the past year — three of them in August.
Three of those violations were tied to one horse who tested positive for too high a level of a medication called Lasix used to prevent bleeding in horses. The drug is administered a few hours before a race by a veterinarian or vet tech hired by the commission. The other drug violation came after a different horse tested positive for a banned antihistamine.
Campbell appealed which led to a closed-door hearing before three commissioners with the Atlantic Provinces Harness Racing Commission a few weeks later.
Ultimately, the commission ruled Campbell wasn’t responsible for the three Lasix positives and lifted the indefinite suspension.
That ruling was based on testimony from a professor of veterinary medicine in Kentucky, who said the only reasonable explanation for the three positive tests was that the horse metabolises the drug at a slower rate than most.
But the commission did hold Campbell responsible for the antihistamine detected in the other horse. It issued him a $750 fine and 34-day suspension, which included the 25 days he’d served leading up to the hearing.
For some in the industry, including horse owner Robbie MacMillan, that 34 days for an antihistamine positive was a red flag.
According to the commission’s penalty table, an antihistamine is a Class 3 drug that carries with it a minimum suspension of 60 days except in cases where commissioners determine there are mitigating circumstances.
‘People want to know why’
In the last five years, the commission has issued 12 other class three suspensions — all for at least 60 days.
Campbell’s 34-day suspension ended one day before the Atlantic Breeder’s Crown in Charlottetown, a major event on the harness racing schedule with big purse money at stake.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a 34-day suspension. But 34 days conveniently brings you right up … to the Breeder’s Crown,” said MacMillan, who lives on P.E.I.
“It’s just a coincidence he got 34 days, and is back by Breeder’s Crown? People want to know why. Where does 34 days come from?”
In the written ruling posted on its website, the commission offered some explanation.
“This situation was unusual. Mr. Campbell trains and drives many horses. The Commission accepts that the impact of the charges, and specifically the indefinite suspension, has been significant for Mr. Campbell,” the decision reads.
“The Commission accepts that there are mitigating circumstances in this case.”
When CBC News asked for details on those mitigating circumstances, the commission responded via email.
“The Commission does not discuss or provide explanations of its decisions beyond the reasons contained in its rulings.”
Alex Baird, the commission’s lawyer, offered some more context in a letter to CBC News last week.
“[Campbell] had already served a penalty on one Lasix offence, and purses were forfeited on three races, but he was ultimately determined not to have been at fault for those three overages, based on the evidence presented,” the letter states.
“There were other implications associated with the positive test as well, which could not be undone.”
But the commission didn’t share that letter publicly.
Without a clearer explanation, MacMillan said it’s hard not to question whether Campbell — a star in harness racing with connections to the commission — was given special treatment. Others involved in the industry raised similar concerns in emails to CBC News after its coverage of Campbell’s case.
The horse that tested positive for the antihistamine is partially owned by Jacinta Campbell, one of P.E.I.’s two appointees on the Atlantic Provinces Harness Racing Commission. She is also part-owner of other horses trained and driven by Marc Campbell.
It’s such a small place here. Recusing yourself here on P.E.I., what does that mean?– Horse owner Robbie MacMillan
Because of those connections, Jacinta Campbell recused herself from Marc Campbell’s appeal hearing.
“Commissioners are bound by a code-of-conduct, which requires them to set aside personal self-interest in performing their duties, and to avoid conflicts of interest,” the commission’s lawyer said in his letter.
MacMillan doesn’t buy it.
“It’s such a small place here. Recusing yourself here on P.E.I., what does that mean?” he said.
“The [other commissioners] still know how [Jacinta Campbell] feels. They still know she’s connected to that barn. So why they wouldn’t want to handle it openly and honestly is beyond me. All they did was shoot themselves in the foot.”
‘Anything but favourable treatment’
Marc Campbell’s lawyer, Jean-Marc MacKenzie, refutes the claim that his client was given special treatment.
MacKenzie said commissioners offered a 34-day suspension after he presented evidence that their penalties and appeal process in drug violation cases were outdated, unjust, and contrary to international guidelines.
He said other racing regulators — including Canada’s largest, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario — impose shorter suspensions for drug violations that involve therapeutic medications like antihistamines.
He also argued Ontario’s commission would have granted Campbell a stay until he had a chance to make his case rather than issuing an immediate suspension. The Atlantic commission, however, only allows stays after class five violations.
“He was suspended without a hearing. He had headlines and all that. So what this guy was put through was anything but favourable treatment,” said MacKenzie.
People are right to ask questions, and it should be the responsibility of a regulator to ensure that transparency and fairness, so these stories don’t cause speculation and more harm.– Jean-Marc MacKenzie, Marc Campbell’s lawyer
“If people [in Atlantic Canada] have been penalized under those penalties in the past, that wasn’t fair. If they were denied their natural justice rights, that hasn’t been fair.”
MacKenzie said he understands the speculation surrounding Campbell’s case, since the appeal hearing wasn’t made public and few details have been shared by the commission.
“People are right to ask questions, and it should be the responsibility of a regulator to ensure that transparency and fairness, so these stories don’t cause speculation and more harm,” he said.
Atlantic provinces consider next steps
The concerns surrounding Campbell’s case have caught the attention of the four provincial governments in Atlantic Canada. The governments of P.E.I., New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador — led by their respective finance departments and the Council of Atlantic Premiers — are responsible for overseeing the commission.
The provinces each appoint two provincial representatives to the commission, partially fund its operations, and are supposed to ensure it meets the obligations laid out in the Atlantic Provinces Harness Racing Commission Act “to govern, regulate and ensure the integrity of harness racing in the Atlantic Provinces.”
A spokesperson for P.E.I.’s Department of Finance said concerns have been raised in recent weeks about whether the commission is doing that effectively.
“It has become clearer over the past few weeks there are concerns from a number of stakeholders involved in or impacted by the regulation of the harness racing industry,” the spokesperson said in an email to CBC News.
“We are consulting with fellow Ministers responsible for harness racing in the other Atlantic Provinces on the necessary next steps to improve regulation of our industry, with the goal of ensuring fairness and transparency for all participants.”
No annual reports filed
The commission is required to submit annual reports, including its audited financial statements, to the Council of Atlantic Premiers. But according to P.E.I.’s Department of Finance, the council hasn’t received an annual report from the commission “for a number of years,” though the commission did submit its latest audited financial statement.
The spokesperson for P.E.I.’s Department of Finance said the issue hadn’t been flagged due to “a number of turnovers in staff over the years,” but added that the commission is working on its annual report submission. The council hasn’t said whether it’s requested annual reports from the commission.
Mitch Murphy, a former P.E.I. politician who served as provincial treasurer and minister responsible for harness racing from 2003-07, said the four provincial governments have an obligation to ensure the commission is following the legislation.
Murphy, who still follows the industry closely, thinks it’s time for that legislation and the commission’s judicial processes to be reformed.
“It’s almost 30 years since the legislation’s been looked at, and that’s on the ministers responsible for harness racing in Atlantic Canada,” he said.
“It’s time to have a look at your legislation because the industry has changed significantly since then. Have a look at best practices in other jurisdictions.”
Murphy points to the Ontario Alcohol and Gaming Commission as a regulator he thinks gets it right, including its appeal process and the level of transparency around its decisions.
A level playing field
The Ontario Alcohol and Gaming Commission appoints a separate independent panel to hold appeal hearings.
Panel chair Stanley Sadinsky said those hearings are open to the public, and the panel’s decisions are laid out in a detailed report which is published online.
“The parties are entitled to know, win or lose, why it is the panel reached the decision it did. And of course the broader public needs to know that. We live or die on the confidence the public has in our processes,” said Sadinsky.
“Horse racing is a sport that involves gambling. When gambling is an issue, integrity is in the minds of many people. When people are being asked to participate, and to wager their money, they’re entitled to feel confident that the game is level, that the playing field is level.”
Auditor General raises concerns
There’s also a lot of provincial tax dollars at stake. The four provinces contribute a combined $400,000 each year to help with the commission’s operating costs, plus additional funds to support the industry.
The P.E.I. government is by far the biggest supporter in the region, providing roughly $6 million a year — much to the P.E.I. Harness Racing Industry Association to grow the sport and put up prize money at Island races.
According to P.E.I. Auditor General Darren Noonan, the specifics of how that money is spent should be laid out in formal funding agreements between government and the association.
There were no formal agreements in place for 2021 and 2022, which Noonan flagged in his annual reports.There is now an agreement in place for 2023.
“Agreements are important to hold people accountable. It’s taxpayers’ money, and the government should be accountable to how that money’s spent,” Noonan said.
MacMillan thinks that accountability and transparency is especially important in P.E.I., where some politicians have ties to the industry. Premier Dennis King and two other PC government members have listed shares in race horses in their Public Disclosure Statements.
“It’s taxpayers’ money that’s going in there and helping to fund [the industry], and the purses are going up. So the public cares, certainly,” said MacMillan.
“They want to know if they go to the race track … and pick a horse they like the colour of, that at least they got a fair shot. But the more the commission holds their cards close to the chest, the more questions there are.”
Commission plans review
No one from the commission would agree to an interview with CBC News, but Baird said in his letter that the commission is looking to improve.
“The commission does intend to review the rule book and take steps to ensure its processes are fair and reasonable,” the letter reads.
“As for transparency, the commission does issue written rulings, which set out the reasons for its decisions. Further steps may be considered as part of the review, with due regard to institutional constraints.”
Fraser is pleased to hear changes may be coming.
“Somehow, somewhere, they’ve got to get somebody to really look at this race game, and oversee it,” he said. “I don’t think the commission’s doing the job it should be doing. It’s just sad.”