Two members of Congress introduced legislation May 4 authorizing penalties for those caught using performance-enhancing drugs in racehorses.
The Federal Trade Commission would enforce the provisions of the bill offered by Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico. Udall indicated the week of April 24 that legislation would be introduced before the May 7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
The bill calls for amendment of the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978, which authorizes the transmission of signals across state lines for wagering purposes. That law gives various parties a say in such transmissions but covers no other areas of horse racing or pari-mutuel wagering, which are regulated at the state level.
The hook to the IHA is it "regulates interstate commerce" such as simulcasts across state lines, the drug legislation notes.
The first drug violation calls for a fine of at least $5,000 and a suspension of at least 180 days; a fine not less than $20,000 and a suspension not less than one year for a second violation; and for a third offense, a fine not less than $50,000 and a permanent ban from horse racing. It doesn't specify which party would get the penalty.
The horse in question would also be penalized: not less than 180 days for the first offense, not less than one year for a second offense, and not less than two years for a third offense.
The two lawmakers in a statement allege “permissive medication rules have resulted in some unscrupulous trainers giving horses painkillers and other drugs to improve their chances of success without regard for health or safety.”
Industry officials repeatedly have said the percentage of positive calls for such drugs is negligible, and that equine drug testing in the United States is the best in the world. Most of the positives or overages are for legal, therapeutic medications used on race day or a few days before.
The legislation apparently classifies therapeutic drugs as performance-enhancing substances. It deals with "any substance capable of affecting the performance of a horse at any time by acting on the nervous system, cardiovascular system, respiratory system, digestive system, urinary system, reproductive system, musculoskeletal system, blood system, immune system--other than licensed vaccines against infectious diseases--or endocrine system" of a racehorse.
Soon after the lawmakers' announcement, National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and chief executive officer Alex Waldrop issued a statement defending the racing industry.
“We strongly disagree with the overall characterization of our sport by the authors of the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act," Waldrop said. "Horse racing continues to outpace other sports in its drug and medication policies. The winner of every race is subject to drug testing at every track, every day in the United States. Non-winning horses are also subject to random drug testing.
"The fact is that less than one-half of 1% of the more than 100,000 tests resulted in a positive for illegal drugs or overages of therapeutic medications in 2010. Our industry is committed to catching and punishing cheaters."
Waldrop also noted the industry has moved on to seriously address the issue of race-day therapeutic medication.
“The horse industry, together with capable and committed state regulatory authorities, equine veterinarians and others, is now engaged in a far reaching dialogue over legal, therapeutic, race-day medications," Waldrop said. "Preserving the welfare of our athletes and the integrity of our competition will always be our foremost goals.”
Udall and Whitfield, however, claim illegal drug use is rampant in U.S. horse racing.
“Chemical warfare is rampant on American racetracks, and unlike other countries, our law does not reject this unscrupulous practice,” Udall said in a statement. “A racehorse has no choice when it comes to using performance-enhancing drugs, but this legislation takes away that option from those who would subject these magnificent animals to such abuse for gambling profit. Those involved in horse racing will have to play by the rules or face getting kicked out of the sport.”
The American Association of Equine Practitioners issued a statement from president Dr. William Moyer May 6. The AAEP is among the groups organizing an international medication summit this summer.
"As doctors of veterinary medicine, our primary focus when evaluating the proposed Interstate Horse Racing Improvement Act is its effect on the health and safety of the racehorse," Moyer said. "The American Association of Equine Practitioners supports the responsible use and regulation of valid therapeutic medications in horse racing. We also support the concept of a national uniform medication policy.
"Racehorses currently compete in a heavily regulated environment with very clear distinctions between illegal drugs and valid medications that provide therapeutic benefit. The very broad language of the bill could eliminate, as written, beneficial treatment of active equine athletes at any time--not just on the day of competition.
"We urge Congress to work with the horse racing industry to learn more about the health-care implications of this bill as it is written and stand ready to assist in that process."
The legislation introduced in the House of Representatives is co-sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts, a Pennsylvania Republican; Rep. Ben Chandler, a Kentucky Democrat; and Jan Schakowsky , an Illinois Democrat.
The topic of federal intervention came up during the University of Kentucky Equine Law Conference in Lexington May 4.
Attorney Joel Turner, who also has a trainer’s license, acknowledged some in horse racing are “worried about opening a Pandora’s box” when it comes to tinkering with the IHA. But he also said Thoroughbred racing is “suffering enormously.”
“I’ve read (the bill) and wish I had been consulted and had the opportunity to make it a little different,” Turner said. “I’m not certain it’s going to get the job done but it’s certainly a wake-up call.”
Turfway Park president Bob Elliston said he prefers regulation on a state-by-state basis but it is incumbent upon the racing industry to show it can reach consensus on solutions.
“If we can’t get it done, I’m not afraid of federal intervention,” Elliston said. “If we can’t get it done, I’ll listen to a federal solution, but give us a shot to do it. If we can’t do it, then shame on us.”
Elliston also is executive chairman of the NTRA, which in the past has opposed federal regulation of horse racing.
Members of Congress weren’t the only ones to use Kentucky Derby week as a platform. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals held a press conference in Louisville, Ky., May 4 to call for The Jockey Club to adopt a “concrete plan to safeguard the future” of ex-racehorses.
PETA wants The Jockey Club, which already is involved in various racehorse retirement programs, to adopt what it calls the “Thoroughbred 360 Lifecycle Fund,” which would require owners and breeders to pay $360 each time a foal is registered. The money would be used for retirement programs.
PETA said about $20 million a year would be raised.