A member of Congress who in 2011 co-sponsored federal legislation that would regulate safety and integrity in horse racing has renewed his call in the wake of a March 25 report in the New York Times.
Democratic New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, in a March 26 release, said the Times report, the first in an installment, paints a “very disturbing picture of the industry.” Thus far, the Times package has focused on Quarter Horse racing, though it lumps Thoroughbred racing in with Quarter Horse racing.
Interestingly, it focused on New Mexico, the state Udall represents in Congress.
“The sport of horse racing which, at its best, showcases the majestic beauty of this animal and the athleticism of jockeys, has reached an alarming level of corruption and exploitation,” Udall said. “The consequence of inconsistent state-level regulation is an epidemic of animal doping that has lead to countless euthanizations of helpless horses and the injury and death of their riders.
“The Times exposé has shined a glaring light on the need for national standards in a sport that reaps gambling profits but has lacked proper oversight for decades.”
Major industry organizations were slow to respond to the Times report, though some industry participants have questioned its methodology in determining the scope of horse injuries and also speculated about its impetus. Industry leaders knew the package of stories was coming.
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which oversees the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance, issued a statement March 27.
"Recent media reports have presented a sobering assessment of the safety and integrity of horse racing," NTRA president and chief executive officer Alex Waldrop said. "The NTRA takes these reports very seriously because we know that thousands of industry participants consider the health and safety of our human and equine athletes and the integrity of our sport to be our highest priorities.
"Over the past several years, the industry has instituted a number of significant safety and integrity reforms, including such initiatives as the Equine Injury Database, the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance, and the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. Despite this progress, we must do more and move with a greater sense of urgency than has been demonstrated to date.
"Toward that end, tracks, horsemen, regulators, and other participants must consider all options for enacting nationwide reform in a more comprehensive, lasting way."
Udall said the 2011 legislation also sponsored by Republican U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky should be advanced in Congress. The bill would set standards for equine medication and penalties.
In keeping with a pattern, mainstream media reports about racing's problems and resulting calls for legislation traditionally come in the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Thoroughbred racing's most recognizable race. Last year's Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act was introduced May 4 during Derby week.
“The horse racing industry has promised voluntary reforms for decades, but as we’ve painfully observed, our legislation is the only viable way to address doping problems plaguing the sport.”
Thoroughbred industry officials have contended progress has been made, particularly over the past four years. Anabolic steroids in racehorses have been effectively banned, and many states have adopted model rules for medication and penalties for violators.
The Jockey Club and other groups since last summer have been in the process of redoing model rules to better address uniformity in race-day medication use and penalties. The document will be unveiled soon.
The Jockey Club is using data, particularly in regard to drug violations and penalties, to track trends and in turn develop protocol. Data thus far shows that since 2005, 1,900 trainers have had a least one violation, but only 50-75 trainers have had 10 or more.
Jockey Club statistics show there have been 12,805 unique trainers that had at least one starter from Jan. 1, 2005-Dec. 31, 2011. Only 14% had any drug violations over a six-year period, and less than 1% averaged more than one medication violation per year.
The bill introduced last year by Udall and Whitfield was largely panned by the racing industry for being unworkable because it makes no differentiation between illegal medications and legal therapeutic substances used in horses for training and racing. There also were concerns Congress would end up opening up the Interstate Horseracing Act, which authorizes full-card simulcasts across state lines.
Late in the afternoon of March 26, American Association of Equine Practitioners president Dr. John Mitchell issued a statement on the Times article.
"There should be no higher priority for the racing community than the health and safety of its equine and human athletes," Mitchell said. "Reducing equine injuries must be the primary focus of all who care for the horse-- from racetrack management and regulators to the veterinarians and horsemen who work daily in the barns.
"The racing community has a fundamental obligation to provide the best of care and oversight for our horses, and there are efforts to fulfill this mission. Examples of programs that have been recently developed for improved care of equine athletes include creation and refinement of the (Equine Injury Database), certification of tracks through the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance, the establishment of aftercare programs for retired racehorses, and the dedication of millions of research dollars to equine health and safety.
"As the New York Times article points out, there is much work to be done. Nationwide adoption of best practices for pre-race inspection and post-race observation along with uniform medication, testing, security, and enforcement policies by all racing jurisdictions are essential safety and integrity elements for all to embrace. Commitment to these principles is critical to the very existence of the sport and most importantly, the safety of its horses and human athletes."
The issue was addressed during the March 26 edition of "At the Races With Steve Byk" on SIRIUSXM. Trainer Chuck Simon, who regularly comments during the program, said the issues need to be addressed but the way the story tackled them was questionable.
"You can write anything you want to write about horse racing and not have to worry about someone coming back at you (to dispute it)," Simon said. "I'm not defending the sport about not having issues. We can always make things better. But progress is always pooh-poohed. People in the industry come off as thinking anything that is done is never enough."
Simon suggested lumping Quarter Horse racing in with Thoroughbred racing "confuses the issues," and he noted Standardbred racing, which rarely has breakdowns on the racetrack or in training, wasn't mentioned in the Times report.