By T. D. Thornton
Backed by the political clout of United States Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), proponents of a federal bill mandating an independent anti-doping and medication control program for horse racing announced at an Aug. 31 press conference at Keeneland that a retooled version of the framework of legislation that has existed since 2015 will be introduced in the Senate in September by McConnell himself.
Backers of the bill spoke Monday of newfound compromise and consensus among the sport's stakeholders that they said would help to usher the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HSIA) to passage. They also outlined how a nine-member oversight board known as the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority would craft the new program, and how that Authority would contract with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to manage and administer the new set of rules. A fresh component that would also cover racetrack safety standards will also be written into McConnell's new version of the bill.
But more questions than answers were raised by the half-hour media event. There was no discussion of how this new Authority would be funded, and there was zero mention of the contentious topic of race-day medication (specifically Lasix), the prohibition of which has been a difficult sticking point in previous versions of the bill.
Although a representative from Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), was on the sales pavilion stage with the bill's proponents and the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) was mentioned as a supporter two minutes before the press conference ended, there was no discussion about what tradeoffs had been made to gain the favor of those two entities, both of which had previously not supported federally mandated oversight of the sport.
In addition, the post-conference question-and-answer session with reporters was not made available to journalists working off the internet stream. TDN emailed McConnell's media liaison three brief follow-up questions about funding, the status of race-day medication, and how the compromises with non-supporters came about. A spokesperson replied without addressing the questions, writing instead that “I will make sure you're updated with more info when the Senator's bill is introduced!”
The Blood-Horse subsequently reported that the new bill would still outlaw the use of race-day Lasix, but that states would be allowed to request a three-year waiver for some exceptions. TDN could not independently verify this aspect of the legislation.
McConnell, who is running for reelection to a seventh term, began the introduction of his bill by saying he decided to get involved in the crafting of federal horse racing legislation after reading that the Washington Post had editorialized banning the sport outright.
“We've seen painful tragedies on the track in recent years. Doping scandals have rocked the horse racing community,” McConnell said. “These challenges pose a threat, not only to this industry, but also to the 24,000 Kentuckians who work in it…. If we want to preserve horse racing and its future, we [need] to act.”
McConnell said his bill, which is expected to be introduced sometime after the current Congressional break that extends through Labor Day, will give federal recognition and enforcement responsibility for the Authority “to develop uniform, baseline standards. With the weight of the federal government behind the [Authority] we can improve current regulations. We can better protect every competitor and give each of them a fair shot at the winner's circle.
“I've had some preliminary discussions with [Democratic Senator] Dianne Feinstein from California, who's had an ongoing concern about this and an interest in it,” McConnell continued. “We anticipate we will have bipartisan support. This is not a particularly bipartisan place we're in right now in Congress, as you may have noticed. But we are hopeful that a subject like this can overcome the partisanship that's pretty much been on full display as we get closer and closer to the election.”
U.S. Representative Andy Barr (R-KY), who co-chairs the Congressional Horse Caucus and has co-sponsored three previous versions of the Horseracing Integrity Act (2015, 2017, 2019), said that he plans to support an amendment to his existing piece of legislation that is still active in the House “to bring it into mirror-image conformity” with McConnell's proposed version.
“The consensus we are here to announce and celebrate today not only accelerates our momentum, it is propelling us down the home stretch,” Barr said. “And I'm confident it will advance the safety, integrity, and international competitiveness of American horse racing.”
McConnell's version, Barr said, “materially improves our bill by adding a focus on track surface safety, and by making reasonable changes that have enabled us to enlarge our coalition of support and bring more organizations with the industry together in support of our legislation…. As I've said many times, this legislation is not about more regulation. It is about creating a single, nationwide set of rules that will result in smarter, more effective, streamlined regulation for the industry.”
Barr said the previous three versions of the Integrity Act that he championed served to aid in “educating members [of Congress] about the industry and persuaded our colleagues that horse racing is a matter of interstate commerce, and that Congress has the constitutional authority to regulate it.”
Barr thanked Churchill Downs for working with his coalition and “joining the cause,” and he praised the HBPA for sharing an “influential voice in support of this legislation.”
But Barr did not elaborate on what those “reasonable changes” were that won over those two opponents. And Eric Hamelback, the HBPA's national chief executive, did not return a voicemail request for comment left by TDN prior to deadline for this story.
CDI chief executive Bill Carstanjen, who as recently as last October said he had “serious concerns” about the Integrity Act and did not think federal legislation was “practical, reasonable, or imminent,” on Monday spoke in favor of McConnell's forthcoming version of the bill.
“The crux of the bill is that this new entity, the Authority, will have jurisdiction over the design, implementation and enforcement of anti-doping and medication controls, as well as racetrack safety protocols,” Carstanjen said. “With respect to the anti-doping and medication control program, the Authority will contract with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) for their services in managing and administering the program developed by the authority. The Authority may also contract with state racing commissions, as it makes sense both with respect to the medication and control program and racetrack safety program.”
Bill Lear Jr., the vice chair of The Jockey Club, detailed how a “blue-ribbon panel” would choose an “independent board” that would, in turn, govern the Authority.
That independent board, Lear said, will be primarily comprised by people outside the industry, and it will be “supported by two substantive standing committees” (one for medication and anti-doping, another for track safety). A third standing committee, he explained, will evolve out of the blue-ribbon panel into a “permanent nominating committee to ensure that we always have top-quality people, the kind we would want to regulate the industry, all with no conflicts.”
The enforcement entity will be USADA, Lear said, adding that “the hallmark of this entire program will be independence, industry expertise, and effective enforcement.”
Following McConnell's introduction of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act in Lexington, Monday, industry groups and legislators released statements in support of the bill. Their statements follow.
NYRA President and CEO Dave O'Rourke:
“NYRA has long supported a national approach to medication control and anti-doping across the sport of horse racing. The safety and welfare of the athletes competing at NYRA tracks is our highest priority, which is why NYRA supports the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act and urges quick consideration by Congress.
“NYRA is committed to providing the safest possible environment for racing and training by adopting and implementing the best proven safety practices in consultation with independent experts, veterinarians, horsemen and regulators.”
For additional information on NYRA's industry leading commitment to safety, visit https://www.nyrainc.com/about/nyra-safety.
Craig Fravel, Chief Executive Officer of The Stronach Group's 1/ST RACING
“1/ST RACING is committed to achieving the highest level of horse care and safety standards in Thoroughbred racing and we strongly urge Congress to consider the adoption of The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act that will introduce national policies to control medication and regulate anti-doping in the sport of horseracing.
At 1/ST RACING our priority is to ensure the safety of our horses and riders and we believe that the investment into equine health and safety is not only the right thing to do, it is crucial to the future of Thoroughbred horseracing. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act recognizes that industry stakeholders including the owners, trainers, breeders, jockeys, and racetrack operators must be unified toward a new standard of equine health, safety and welfare.”
Joe Appelbaum, President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association
“Horsemen should view today's developments with the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act with hope. It's been clear for a generation that a systematic approach to equine welfare is needed and this effort is a big step in that direction. The broad changes proposed today by Senator McConnell are a significant improvement on previous drafts of legislation and I'd like to personally commend the industry participants for working together to overcome their differences.
The real work starts now, as we will need to not only pass this legislation, but actually implement its proposals. NYTHA looks forward to working with all parties to ensure that horse racing has a worthy system ensuring the safety of our equine athletes and a level playing field. Our primary stakeholders, horsemen and bettors, deserve nothing less.”
Representative Paul D. Tonko (D-NY)
“For nearly six years now, I have led a broad, bipartisan campaign to bring America's sport of kings into the modern age, including common sense measures to protect our equine athletes and bring greater integrity to the sport of horseracing. Today's announcement of legislation to be introduced in the Senate means, after all this time, we are rounding the final turn. With the support of Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Churchill Downs, I am confident that this compromise legislation will unite all who are interested in building a strong foundation and a prosperous future for this noble sport. I look forward to advancing this legislation in the House as an amended form of our Horseracing Integrity Act before the end of the year.”