By T. D. Thornton
Witnesses from the Thoroughbred industry who testified Tuesday in Washington, D.C., at a legislative hearing on the Horseracing Integrity Act agreed that the sport is facing an unprecedented equine health crisis. But they were sharply split as to whether the current version of a federal bill mandating an independent anti-doping and medication control program was the best way to keep the industry from slipping into deeper peril.
The most cogent argument repeatedly put forth by pro-legislation speakers was that racehorses, unlike human athletes, don't have a say in being administered either performance-enhancing or therapeutic drugs, and that decades of permissive pharmaceutical abuse has eroded both the actual health of American Thoroughbreds and the public's perception of whether the game is fair and ethical.
Race-day medication has got to go, supporters argued, claiming the crisis is so far out of control that a federal remedy needs to be voted in to replace the current 38-state regulatory framework.
Opponents of HB 1754 told legislators that the sport's equine health crisis stems instead from a need for better monitoring of pre-existing health conditions in racehorses. The introduction of foaling-to-retirement monitoring and the shoring up of overall safety standards were both cited as potential remedies. And if regulators had a more comprehensive and open way of sharing veterinary records, it would enable the industry to red-flag and treat horses likely to suffer catastrophic injuries before they happened.
It was also revealed in testimony that at least one stakeholder who is against the current version of federal legislation is open to the idea of achieving uniformity through a compromise bill that could be hammered out by this summer.
“We're all in theory talking about the same goals,” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), the sponsor of the Integrity Act, said near the end of the two-hour hearing before the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce. “And yet each of you [who testified against it] opposes the very piece of legislation that would make [uniformity] a reality instead of a tired talking point.
“So my question to any of you—and it's mostly a rhetorical one—is when can we actually expect results from [the current status-quo] scheme?” Tonko continued. “We've received countless promises from the industry for decades. And yet here we are in 2020, with more than 40 deaths on the tracks at Santa Anita that are tarnishing the sport in the eyes of the American public. When is enough enough?”
Dennis Drazin, an attorney who is a former New Jersey racing commissioner and the current chief executive of Darby Development, which operates Monmouth Park, replied that the two sides might not be far off in agreeing on a reform plan.
“I'm frustrated by the delay. I agree with Congressman Tonko that it's taken too long,” Drazin said. “But we're at a crisis now. Because of [the equine fatalities] in Santa Anita, the whole focus of the industry is on saving horse racing, because we recognize we're heading in the wrong direction. And I think that if you give us—I'm going to go out on a limb and say another six months—we'll be able to come together with a consensus bill that would be better for the industry.”
In his written testimony, Drazin explained that “putting aside the fact that I have always been opposed to federal legislation and feel that the industry should self-regulate, I have been participating in an industry effort to unify and support a bill that all interested parties feel would be a compromise….While I still believe that federal legislation is unnecessary, if it is inevitable, I want to be part of the solution, and HR 1754 is not a solution, but only a small part of all the needed reforms for our industry.”
Four witnesses testified in support of the bill, which has existed in the legislature since 2015 in three separate forms but has never advanced past the subcommittee hearing stage: William Lear, Jr. (vice chairman of The Jockey Club), Joe DeFrancis (advisor to the Humane Society of the United States and former chief executive of the Maryland Jockey Club), Chris McCarron (retired Hall of Fame jockey) and Marty Irby (executive director of Animal Wellness Action, a protection advocacy organization).
Three witnesses testified against the bill: Drazin, Ed Martin (president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International) and Dr. Kathleen Anderson (a Fair Hill, Maryland, racehorse vet and past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners).
Most of the witnesses used their allotted five minutes of presentation time to read into the record the written testimony they had submitted beforehand (see those statements here).
But Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL) was able to elicit more drilled-down responses by asking witnesses to state whether they thought the current bill would restore integrity to the sport, or, if not, what one specific counter-suggestion would they propose instead.
“I think this will do a world to improve the integrity of the sport and the interest of people. The two things that most drive people away from our sport are concerns about whether it's really fair and breakdowns. Nothing runs fans away from horse racing like the death of a horse,” said Lear.
“It would undoubtedly improve the integrity of the sport,” said DeFrancis. “Most importantly in the perception of our customers and the perception of the general public, whose support we need to have a viable business.”
McCarron, who rode for 28 years, drew upon experiences he had in 18 months of working as the general manager at Santa Anita in 2003-04 to underscore his support for the bill.
“I had [patrons] coming into my office on a daily basis saying that the integrity of the sport is just abysmal,” McCarron said. “That they are sick and tired of betting on races not knowing who the cheaters are. Not knowing which horses are going to be coming out of barns that are not playing by the rules. Something drastic has to be done, and I have a lot of faith in this bill that it would accomplish just that.”
Even the witnesses who opposed the bill testified in response to Soto's question that there are some areas of common ground between the pro and con positions.
“I don't think this bill as presently written is going to improve the integrity of the sport,” said Martin. “But I think it would improve the integrity of the sport if it were to take [the proposed] non-governmental organization [and instead] turn it into a multi-jurisdictional investigative [organization] to do out-of-competition testing as well as out-of-competition suitability exams to do the reviews of horses that are red-flagged because of their vet records and procedures.”
Anderson said “I believe that it would improve the integrity from an anti-doping perspective.” But, she added, “I do not think it would change very much on the therapeutic medication. And I think if I was to add to [the bill] it would be significant reforms in the area of safety [because] I think it's totally lacking in safety oversight.”
Drazin summed up his thoughts by noting perceived flaws in the bill but still calling for “uniformity across the country in order to protect these horses.”
“This bill will not save racehorses. There will still be injuries. There will still be deaths,” Drazin said. “What it will do—I agree—is it will accomplish something in changing the public's perception of being able to promote that all horses are medication-free on race day. I think that may restore some public confidence. But I think in order to save horses, what I'd like to see changed is [to] incorporate amendments that deal with racetrack safety accreditation [and better detection of] pre-existing injuries.”
Just like in June 2018, when a previous version of the Integrity Act was debated by industry stakeholders in a hearing before the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee, a good portion of the back-and-forth testimony on Tuesday revolved around race-day Lasix usage, which HB 1754 would prohibit.
Unfortunately—just like in 2018—the densely complicated topics of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage and Lasix therapy are so cumbersome and polarizing that it seemed difficult for either side to make salient points under time constraints.
At one point, Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA)—the only pharmacist currently serving in Congress—began grilling Anderson about the performance-enhancing capabilities of Lasix based on the diuretic's prodigious ability to pull water weight out of racehorses.
“If you take 20 or 30 pounds of fluid off of a horse, can they run faster?” Carter asked.
“I don't know the answer to that, and I'm not sure that anybody does,” Anderson replied. “In humans, that is correct. But for example, where I practice, we ship to seven different states on any given day, and those horses are going to be losing weight just [from] shipping.
Carter interjected that he's no veterinarian, but “common sense” would tell him that taking 20 or 30 pounds off an animal would help it move faster.
“That's common sense, but that's not science,” Anderson shot back. “And that's all I'm trying to speak from.”
Drazin later testified from a track executive's perspective what HB 1754's no race-day medication mandate would mean.
“If you ban Lasix, number one, my track, Monmouth Park, we probably won't survive,” Drazin said. “I don't think we'll be able to get enough horses to participate because probably 80 to 90% of our horses run on Lasix now.”
Tonko, the bill's sponsor, asked opponents to look beyond the controversial race-day medication ban to see the beneficial “ripple effects” in overall horse health that he predicted would follow if the measure passed into law.
DeFrancis urged the bill's opponents not to scuttle the entire piece of legislation based on disagreement with its key point.
“I agree with many of the things that Mr. Martin and Mr. Drazin have said in terms of things that we can do to improve horse health and safety,” DeFrancis said. “But let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good. We need to take action right away. Every day that we delay, we're losing more and more public support, more and more fans, more and more customers. And it's getting that much more difficult to get them back.”
Thoroughbred Safety Coalition Issues a Statement Following the Congressional Hearing…
Following the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection's hearing on the Horseracing Integrity Act, the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition issued the following statement:
“The Thoroughbred Safety Coalition's top priority is the wellbeing of our athletes, both equine and human. To this end, we welcome and applaud all ongoing efforts to increase the safety and integrity of our sport. While lawmakers work through the lengthy legislative process, the Thoroughbred racing community must work together to advocate for and implement meaningful reforms in racing jurisdictions across the country. It is our responsibility to ensure the horses that make our sport so special are racing under the safest and most transparent conditions possible. We can and must act quickly.
That's why leading racetracks and key stakeholders, including Breeders' Cup Limited, Churchill Downs Incorporated, Keeneland Association Inc., the New York Racing Association Inc., Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and The Stronach Group, along with the American Association of Equine Practitioners, Dixiana Farm, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, Mt. Brilliant Farm, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Stonestreet Farm, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and the University of Kentucky, have united in an industry-led effort to advance safety measures. Together, we can enact meaningful change with immediate effect.
Through increased medication restrictions, expanded veterinary examinations, stricter transparency and accountability measures, centralized and increased reporting requirements, data analysis, more consistent racing surfaces and additional operational reforms, the coalition will promote a culture of safety in Thoroughbred racing. The most powerful traditions are those that adapt. Change cannot wait.”