Thoroughbred racing got further bruises April 30 during an allegation-ridden congressional hearing into equine health and medication issues that furthered a call for federal intervention—at least on some level.
“It was another black eye,” one industry representative said after the hearing.
And it might have been self-inflicted. Even members of Congress who attended the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health hearing near Kennett Square, Pa., seemed surprised racing keeps treading water in regard to uniform regulation.
“No one (in racing) has the authority to do much of anything,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky. “Every four or five years this issue comes up. Industry groups have the best of intentions but they have no authority (to act).”
“Nobody is in charge,” said Thoroughbred owner and breeder Arthur Hancock III, who supports federal intervention. “We’ve been talking for decades with few tangible remedies. There were no remedies until now. That remedy is legislation.
“All we’ve had is hot air and hope.”
The 2 1/2-hour hearing at Unionville High School featured eight “witnesses” who support some form of federal oversight. Most of the testimony received applause from the audience, an oddity for a congressional hearing.
There were frequent references to an ongoing New York Times series that has been questioned over its methodology in calculating catastrophic breakdown numbers. And there were claims by witnesses of rampant cheating in the Thoroughbred business, but congressmen asked for no supporting evidence.
Owner George Strawbridge said racing’s woes center on “stimulants, steroids, pain medications, anti-inflammatory drugs, and other chemicals used to enhance performance and mask injuries.” He said regulators and veterinarians acknowledge abuses, but tracks and racing commissions “lack the will or money to crack down.”
Dr. Kathryn Papp, a private-practice vet based in the Mid-Atlantic region, said the “overuse and abuse of medication is rampant at our Thoroughbred racetracks and training centers. The abuse is not just limited to performance-enhancing drugs; it encompasses all substances our trainers think may improve their horse’s performance, from valid treatments to hokey and possibly dangerous therapies.”
Papp also claimed to have witnessed vets on race day walk into stalls with three to 10 syringes to administer substances and not be questioned by anyone.
Trainer Ken McPeek, one of the hearing witnesses, said he hasn’t seen such a thing at the racetrack, and also urged lawmakers to narrow their focus because the issue is complex.
“The topic of performance-enhancing drugs is very complicated,” McPeek said. “The only current race-day drug allowed is (furosemide, also called Salix or Lasix). From my experience there are horses that need this therapeutically.
“This committee needs to move slowly in this area. Do not tear down the current system, but we need to start somewhere.”
Racing has long been haunted by its inability to educate lawmakers and the public on the differences between illegal and therapeutic drugs, which often are lumped together by those with no day-to-day experience with the racing industry. Questions asked during the hearing indicate misinformation.
“I do not believe any major decisions about horse racing should be without involvement from professionals like myself,” McPeek said. “There are other trainers that need to be heard, and they should eventually be given an opportunity to contribute to this conversation.”
The National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association had no witnesses on the two panels but released a document afterward questioning the analysis of regulatory data by the New York Times. The horsemen’s group said the numbers don’t show a “rampant illegal drugging” of horses.
“The New York Times and many of those industry voices calling for a ban on race-day medication appear to labor under the misconception that race-day medication in addition to Lasix is routinely permitted in numerous racing jurisdictions,” the National HBPA said. “That is not true.”
There are still several states that allow use of adjunct bleeder medications on race day, but most if not all are phasing them out as part of a revised model rule approved by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and Association of Racing Commissioners last year.
Dr. Greg Ferraro of the University of California-Davis said it may be too late. Ferraro, a witness, took part in the hearing from California.
“The public is overwhelmingly opposed to the use of any type of drugs in horse racing, whether they are judged to be performance-enhancing or not or whether they are legally permitted or not,” he said. “The perception is that drugs are associated with catastrophic injuries and malfeasance in gambling.”
McPeek urged lawmakers not to assume all injuries or catastrophic breakdowns are related to medication.
Trainer Glenn Thompson, who authored a book called The Tradition of Treating in the Sports of Kings, blamed the establishment for racing’s problems and said if changes are made in six months, Congress should step in.
“I feel very strongly the people that oversee racing should shoulder a large portion of the blame for the problems we are now facing,” Thompson said. "Year after year they have made it very easy to cheat and have done nothing to correct the problem. They say all the right things and talk a good game, but I would give them a very low grade on their effectiveness.”
Thompson later gestured toward a part of the lecture hall where Unionville High School students had been observing and said: “If the students in this school got together, they could do a better job.”
Industry organizations were not on the witness list. Several refrained from comment when the hearing and witness list were announced, but Thoroughbred Racing Associations executive vice president Chris Scherf did attend the hearing.
“I’m afraid it left people more confused than actually clarified the issues,” Scherf said. “I’m afraid people won’t understand what legal race-day medication is.”
McPeek, who supports the proposed Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act because it would offer uniformity in rules, licensing, medication, and horse welfare standards, indicated people may not be seeing the whole picture.
“Drug-testing levels are so fine,” McPeek said after the hearing. “You can’t call everyone (with a positive) a cheater and a doper. The problem is we need national rules. There are too many rules in too many places.”