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Congress May Call June Hearing on Racing

Congress plans to examine issues related to breakdowns, drugs, and breeding.

A congressional subcommittee could schedule a hearing as early as June to examine breakdowns, medication use, and breeding practices in Thoroughbreds.

The United States House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection sent letters May 22 to Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International; Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of The Jockey Club; Frank Stronach, chairman of Magna Entertainment Corp.; Robert Evans, president and chief executive officer of Churchill Downs Inc.; and Charles Hayward, president and CEO of the New York Racing Association. The subcommittee, which previously looked into the use of steroids in Major League Baseball and other sports, including horse racing, requested information by June 2, which offers a very small window for industry compliance.

The subcommittee is seeking, among other things, details on equine injuries; whether racing programs bolstered by gaming revenue use money for research to improve the breed; and whether industry officials support formation of a national governing body for horse racing.

The subcommittee is chaired by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, and its ranking member is U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky.

Kristin Walker, Whitfield’s press secretary, said May 27 that plans call for a hearing to be held in June, but no date has been set. The hearing would be similar to those held by Congress on jockey health and welfare in the Thoroughbred industry.

Congress may look at the Interstate Horseracing Act, which authorizes simulcasts across state lines, including account wagering. The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection has jurisdiction over the commercial practices of sports and gambling.

“Given the benefits of the IHA to the racing industry, we believe congressional oversight should play a role in determining whether the special status of the sport under federal law is still warranted,” the subcommittee letters said.

On the topic of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, including racing, the subcommittee said it plans to "introduce and consider bipartisan legislation to address the problem."

The focus on horse racing intensified after the breakdown and subsequent euthanization of the filly Eight Belles after the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). The industry employed crisis-management techniques, formed new committees to examine equine health and safety, and called for a speeding up of industry research already under way.

“This reinforces the important work of the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit and the need to implement its recommendations,” Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association president Dan Metzger said May 27 in response to the call for a congressional inquiry. “Implementation of the recommendations would show everyone that the industry is serious about addressing these important issues.”

RCI president Ed Martin couldn’t be immediately reached to comment on what the organization could provide to the subcommittee.

When reached May 27, National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and chief executive officer Alex Waldrop, who earlier this year predicted action by Congress, said the industry would work with lawmakers. The NTRA did not receive a copy of the letter from Rush and Whitfield.

"The health and safety of the horse is the industry's top priority," said Waldrop, who testified before Congress during the hearing on steroid use. "We welcome the involvement of Congress in the process of determining how we can ensure the health and safety of the horse.

"Certainly, everything is on the table for discussion. The industry has nothing to hide. We look forward to working with Congress on these matters."

Waldrop said timely implementation of recommendations is key to the process.

In its letter, the subcommittee cited concerns that “leading officials in the sport” have failed to tackle long-standing concerns over the welfare of the Thoroughbred horse.” It also suggested the “Thoroughbred breed has become increasingly fragile.”

Interestingly, the topic of federal regulation came up during the May 20 Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council meeting. The drug council is chaired by Whitfield’s wife, Connie.

“The mantra is that the Interstate Horseracing Act is going to be opened up—everybody says that,” Connie Whitfield said during the meeting. “It sounds like a Pandora’s box. It’s very malevolent, and maybe it’s intended to be. Most people in Congress don’t even know what horse racing is all about. I think it would be helpful if we got past that.”

Racing industry officials have said they believe any attempts by Congress to regulate aspects of horse racing would be tied to the IHA given its importance.

“The first thing we don’t need is the federal government getting into our business,” said trainer Rick Hiles, a drug council member. “We need to be out in front to show we’re doing what’s needed (as an industry).”

Kentucky Sen. Damon Thayer, also a drug council member, said the U.S. constitution gives certain rights to states, but that doesn’t mean Congress won’t attempt to exercise authority.

“The thought of the federal government regulating horse racing is frightening,” Thayer said. “But if we can’t get it right on the state level, the federal government can and will usurp the right of states to regulate horse racing.”