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Subcommittee Debates Racing Safety, Integrity

United States Anti-Doping Agency would have oversight of the sport's drug policy.

In considering the newest wrinkle to add federal oversight in horse racing, this time through the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), a House subcommittee discussed the sport's equine health and integrity issues at a Nov. 21 hearing in Washington.

The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade is considering legislation (H.R. 2012) that would give the USADA the responsibility of ensuring the integrity and safety of racing. The legislation was considered during a hearing that lasted about 70 minutes Thursday in the Rayburn House Office Building.

Racing currently is regulated at the state level but the bill would require any track that wishes to participate in interstate wagering, where most of racing's pari-mutuel revenue is generated, to submit to USADA oversight on drug issues.

The USADA and its chief executive officer Travis Tygart are best known for their 2012 report outlining doping by cyclist Lance Armstrong and his teammates. Tygart said his non-profit group that serves as the anti-doping organization for Olympic sports in the U.S. is ready to include horse racing under its umbrella.

"The USADA's perspective on the current anti-doping climate in horseracing comes from living the history of the fight against doping that has occurred within the international Olympic movement over the past 13 years," Tygart said in his submitted statement.

At the hearing he said issues faced by racing, with its 38 different state regulators, are similar to what the International Olympic Committee and U.S. Olympic Committee faced in the 1990s.

"There were a myriad of different rules and regulations across the globe in each jurisdiction and even each sport," Tygart said in his statement. "There was no uniform or harmonized policy for what was considered a violation, what was tested for, what collection and chain of custody procedures applied, what laboratory standards applied. There were varying sanction lengths."

Bill sponsor Joe Pitts (Republican-Pa.) said the current state system is not protecting horses. He cited the pre-race medication record of Coronado Heights, a horse who broke down in February 2012 at Aqueduct. In a New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety report, it was noted the horse trained by Todd Pletcher received an injection of hyaluronic acid and Depo-Medrol five days before the race. The report says the treatment was not reported to the stewards, as required by New York rules.

The report also said Coronado Heights was routinely treated with two non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs as well as Legend and Adequan, which are used to protect horse joints. 

The report concludes, "The aggressive pre-race medication protocol in the days leading up to his final race may have masked clinical signs of lameness and confounded the pre-race examination."

Pitts asked veterinarian and hearing witness Sheila Lyons her opinion of Coronado Heights' pre-race treatment. Lyons said such treatment is not putting the horse first. 

"It's putting the interest of getting the horse over to the races rather than its health and well-being," Lyons said. "In my opinion, that horse broke down because of the injury-masking drugs that were administered."

Jesse Overton, the first of six panel witnesses, said the current state regulatory framework is not doing the job of protecting horses and ensuring integrity. The former Minnesota Racing Commission chairman said when his state improved testing and enforcement, some trainers moved on to more lax states.

"I am proud of the improvements made in Minnesota, but my state's rules don't affect rules or enforcement in the other 37 states which are often different, or in conflict, with Minnesota's rules," Overton said in his statement. "Trainers and owners frequently race their horses in multiple states, so keeping up with various drug requirements and withdrawal times is a daunting task. And with winning as the overarching goal, some trainers race in states with more lenient medication rules. In fact, Minnesota's stricter medication and enforcement rules resulted in some horsemen electing not to return to Minnesota when we improved our medication testing."

Without changes, Overton sees little future for racing.

"As a racing commissioner, I was stunned by the lengths some trainers will go to win races," Overton said in his statement. "As you will hear from other witnesses, there is no drug or compound that has not been tried in horses, from EPO (Erythropoietin) and anabolic steroids to frog juice (demorphin) and cobra venom. And I promise there are chemists right now working up new, illegal, undetectable substances to give a trainer who wants a performance advantage, especially if he doesn't have the fastest horse. 

"Unless drug testing is conducted uniformly and in state-of-the-art laboratories, unscrupulous horsemen will continue to cheat the system, the horses and the fans."

While the sport's problems were debated during the hearing, several committee members questioned if expanded federal oversight, specifically through the USADA, would effectively address those issues.

Rep. John Yarmouth (Democrat-Ky.) raised concerns about the USADA's ability to move from human sports to horse racing. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, (Republican-Fla.) said in general he favors exhausting all regulatory options at state level before adding federal oversight.

While the legislation would provide the USADA oversight of medication issues in the sport, the bill also calls for the prohibition of race-day furosemide (Salix, also called Lasix). Yarmouth expressed concerns about that provision.

Witness Phil Hanrahan, chief executive officer of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said his group continues to favor use of the diuretic as the best way to prevent or reduce the severity of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage.

"The NHBPA supports the continued use of Lasix (or Salix) on race day and the use before race day of other recognized therapeutic medications like phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory equivalent to aspirin used by humans," Hanrahan said in his statement, noting during the hearing that his organization staunchly opposes illegal doping but draws a clear distinction when it comes to lawful therapeutic medications.

Other speakers during the hearing included Dr. Lawrence Soma, who spoke about upgraded testing labs up and running in horse racing under the current regulatory framework; and Humane Society of the United States President Wayne Pacelle, who said his organization does not oppose racing but wants to see improved safety numbers and reduced use of medications.

For submitted papers, click the name of the panel witness.

Jesse Overton

Phil Hanrahan

Lawrence Soma

Travis Tygart

Sheila Lyons

Wayne Pacelle

For a video replay of the hearing, click here.