By Bill Finley
WASHINGTON–A new day, another hearing, a familiar story. That’s often been the case over these many years as reform-minded politicians have held several hearings to discuss efforts to bring reform to horse racing, particularly in the area of drugs. Thursday’s hearing of the Congressional Horse Caucus, which has been pushing for passage of the Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2015, didn’t exactly crack the mold as it failed to accomplish much in the area of breaking new ground.
But it did feature a relatively new player in the debate over federal intervention and drugs and one who came with a powerful message. Joe DeFrancis, the former chief executive of Pimlico and Laurel who is currently advising the Humane Society of the United States, brought his A game to the nation’s capital Thursday. DeFrancis was unwavering and unapologetic when he warned the racing industry that if major changes are not made, the sport could suffer dire consequences.
DeFrancis repeatedly referred to the tragic breakdown of Barbaro (Dynaformer) in the 2006 GI Preakness and said the only reason the sport’s reputation came off relatively unharmed was due to the high regard the public had for owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson and trainer Michael Matz.
He painted an ugly picture of what would happen should a horse suffer a catastrophic breakdown in a future Triple Crown race and its connections had any hint of scandal attached to them.
“Barbaro’s injury was not the result of medication use,” he said. “It was just tragic bad luck. But had it been traceable to some form of medication abuse, you can forget about it. Millennials and people of all generations will abandon horse racing so fast it will make everyone’s head spin. That’s why this is so critical and so critical it be done right now. We are in a state of crisis. We are one catastrophic accident away from what would be irreparable damage to sport.”
DeFrancis added that the reputation of American racing elsewhere in the world could not be worse.
“Internationally, we are literally a joke,” he said.
He recounted a conversation he had recently with foreign horsemen.
“Someone said, ‘Don’t you have bleeders in Australia?’ and they all laughed and said, ‘Yeah, we just send them all to the United States,” DeFrancis said. “We’ve become a dumping ground for horses with infirmities. We are fiddling while Rome is burning when we talk about the ability to do this by states all coming together. We’re talking about the states doing something they haven’t been able to do for 50 years.”
Representatives Andy Barr (R-KY) and Paul Tonko (D-NY) head the Congressional Horse Caucus and are the political leaders behind the movement to pass the Thoroughbred Horseracing Industry Integrity Act of 2015.
The act would give the federal government major control over racing, including allowing it to pass uniform medication rules across the country and turning over all drug testing to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). The majority of those invited to speak Thursday strongly supported the act. The many Congressmen who came and went during the hearing also unanimously voiced their hopes that the act would some day be passed.
The website govtrack.us gives the act only a 4% chance of passage. Despite those odds, those in favor of government oversight apparently aren’t going to go down without a fight. Celebrity chef and horse owner Bobby Flay was among those who spoke passionately about the need for reform in the sport.
He said he has many wealthy friends he has tried to interest in horse ownership and too often runs into a dead end.
“Representative [Gregory] Meeks [D-NY] said he’s concerned that at some point the public is going to look down upon the sport,” Flay said. “Well, that’s why we’re here today. It’s already happened; it happened a long time ago and we’re trying to climb out of that. I try to bring as many people as I can to a horse race and get them involved as much as I possibly can because I know that once I actually expose them to it they’ll fall in love with it. But when they have to think about investing their money and their time it becomes a problem because they’re not sure it’s on the up and up, and that’s a really hard argument to fight.”
Afterward, Barr said hearings such as Thursday’s help build momentum for legislation and that this hearing definitely moved the needle.
“If the wagering public does not have confidence in the integrity or the safety of the sport we’re going to lose fans,” he said. “We need those fans to come to the racetrack to wager on these races and to fall in love with the sport like so many generations before them. The key to preserving, promoting and enhancing this sport for future generations is to establish a national uniform medication program that everybody will have confidence in.”