By T. D. Thornton
Three versions of proposed federal legislation known as the Horseracing Integrity Act have been introduced in the United States Congress over the past five years, and only twice has the bill advanced as far as the subcommittee hearing level, like it did last Tuesday.
Whether you're for or against HB 1754, which would mandate an independent anti-doping and medication control program in our sport, if you're called as a witness, it's crucial to tailor your arguments as concisely as possible.
That's because legislators hearing testimony in the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce have zero or limited knowledge of the inner workings of the Thoroughbred industry, and the time window for making one's case is brief and intense, with politicians firing off questions and briskly prompting witnesses to get to the point.
Legislators underscored their lack of familiarity with sport-specific subject matter right off the bat when the Jan. 28 hearing commenced. One politician read opening remarks that incorrectly referred to “Mongo Groom” as the horse who suffered a catastrophic injury in the Breeders' Cup. Another made a cringe-worthy slip of the tongue by calling the sport's showcase event the “Cripple Crown” before quickly correcting herself.
Sure, those were inadvertent verbal miscues. Nevertheless, they established an unsettled tone as witnesses attempted in two hours to get lawmakers to understand difficult issues that the Thoroughbred industry has been debating for decades.
Despite the auspicious start, the most pleasant surprise of the hearing ended up being a thread of cooperation that emerged among pro and con witnesses. Hints of a willingness to work together weren't there the last time the two sides debated the Integrity Act at a 2018 Congressional subcommittee hearing, when testimony took on more of an “Us vs. Them” tenor.
Last Tuesday's pro-legislation witnesses were 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).
The anti-legislation witnesses were Dennis Drazin (chief executive of Darby Development, which operates Monmouth Park), 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).
What's changed since 2018 to bring the Integrity Act's supporters and detractors theoretically closer together?
Drazin summed it up best when he said he agreed with the bill's sponsor, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), that the sport's status quo has failed to deliver workable solutions in the face of mounting trouble.
“We're at a crisis now,” Drazin explained. “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.”
Drazin didn't offer many specifics about what a compromise bill might look like, but Martin proposed some tweaks worthy of consideration.
“I don't think this bill as presently written is going to improve the integrity of the sport,” Martin said. “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.”
The figurative olive branch extended the other way, too. On the pro side, DeFrancis said he agreed 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.”
Those ideas included incorporating protocols designed to treat horses likely to suffer catastrophic injuries before they happen (other safety-centric concepts were outlined in TDN's Jan. 28 recap of the hearing; read about them here).
But compromise is in the eye of the proposer. A sizable rift still exists over the bill's big sticking point–the banishment of all race-day medication, including Lasix. Supporters of HB 1754 want the ban, opponents don't.
This ideological gap is enough to make you wonder whether the “consensus” bill Drazin spoke of might really be better described as a “competing” piece of legislation if and when it surfaces.
At the 2018 hearing for the previous version of the Integrity Act, one Congressman lamented the “unfortunate” missed opportunity that no veterinarians had been invited to the panel to explain the role of Lasix in horses.
The opponents of HB 1754 must have taken note of that, because they were well represented this time around by Anderson, the lone practicing Thoroughbred veterinarian among the witnesses. She held firm under cross-examination from a Congressman who tried to get her to admit that Lasix has performance-enhancing capabilities because of its well-known reputation for eliminating water weight.
“That's common sense, but that's not science,” was Anderson's terse reply when asked if she believed that shedding 20 to 30 pounds would enable a horse to run faster.
Without a strong veterinary rebuttal to counter that Lasix is indeed a performance-enhancer that needs to be prohibited on race day, the HB 1754 proponents were at an argumentive disadvantage.
At one point, McCarron diverged to relate his “personal experience” with using Lasix when he was a jockey in an effort to reduce his own body weight. He was trying to make the point that Lasix can be a caustic substance that wreaks havoc with dehydration.
But you could sense this anecdote was confusing to legislators, many of whom had no idea why the topic abruptly got switched from horses being administered Lasix to a human using it for entirely different purposes.
Which brings us back to the initial point of this column: The need to stick to core arguments when complex subject matter is debated in a Congressional setting.
As I listened to Tuesday's hearing, I jotted down every time the witnesses–both pro and con–cited specialized Thoroughbred terminology that was likely not to be understood by legislators trying to grasp both sides of thorny issues.
Complicated topics that both sides weaved into their testimony included snippets about how the class structure works in racing, how horses are acquired via claiming, the roles of regulatory veterinarians, the concept of foaling-to-retirement lifetime traceability, and the controversial subject of whip abuse.
When one witness cited decades-ago usage of an adjunct drug known as Kentucky Red to stop racehorse bleeding, and another brought up the concept of bisphosphonates testing at yearling sales, I'd be willing to wager the only people in the hearing chamber who knew what was being talked about were the people from the racing industry.
Yet if you're against HB 1754, this sort of general confusion among legislators might be exactly what you want.
When lawmakers are tasked with deciding whether bills on deeply complex topics are going to advance or not, they often default to the position of letting the status quo remain in place if they can't fully comprehend the effects of the proposed legislative changes.
Remember, a Congressional subcommittee isn't required to act upon measures that are referred to it.
Thus, the bill's fate is likely to come down to whether lawmakers emerged from the Horseracing Integrity Act hearing with more or less clarity than when they went into it.