Commentary: A Matter of Integrity

By Rep. Ed Whitfield

Three years ago, Congress examined the explosion of steroid use plaguing Major League Baseball. We heard first-hand accounts about how steroids had become a part of the baseball culture, as commonplace as wearing a glove. The integrity of the game was called into question and a dark cloud was cast over America’s favorite pastime.

Today, the perception that steroid use is common practice has diminished and regulation of drug use in professional baseball has improved greatly. MLB leaders came together to significantly improve drug testing procedures and the anti-­doping program. While there are still challenges facing the leagues, MLB’s anti-doping program is widely considered the toughest in all of major league sports.

Now compare this result with that of the congressional examination of drug use in horse racing. Congress first addressed drug use in the sport 27 years ago. U.S. Senator Mac Mathias and other leaders in Congress spearheaded efforts to enact legislation that would have banned a number of drugs from horse racing and established a clear, uniform rule to govern the sport in the United States.

State racing commissioners and industry leaders, however, quickly descended to thwart the senator’s efforts. They claimed federal intervention was unnecessary and pledged to crack down on the use of drugs.

Today, drug use in horse racing is worse than ever, and racing remains the only professional sport in the country without a ban on steroids. There is no uniform national drug policy, and the U.S. lags behind other countries in its policies—or lack thereof.

Europe, Japan, South Africa, Dubai, Australia, and other major racing jurisdictions have banned the use of drugs still commonplace in America. England, for example, banned steroids more than 30 years ago. It is sad that throughout the world the U.S. is viewed as a place where racing is about drugs.

Horse racing has a rich tradition in the U.S. and has attracted a loyal fan base. The industry impact on the economy is tens of billions of dollars. By failing to enact an effective, uniform drug policy to regulate horse racing, we jeopardize the integrity of the sport, endanger the riders and horses, and risk the fans’ loyalty.

Drug use endangers the health and safety of the horses and the jockeys. Steroids contribute to clotting disorders, liver damage, heart attacks, strokes, and weakened tendons, while other drugs can mask fatigue and other ailments. Although the industry does not provide concrete statistics about accidents and fatalities during races, it is estimated that more than 3,000 horses die on the track every year.

We all recognize that horse caretakers must have the authority to treat sick and injured animals as they see fit. Certain drugs, when used appropriately, can help rehabilitate an injured horse and ease the pain an animal may experience. But if a horse is injured or is not healthy enough to run without the use of drugs, then it should not be running.

Former CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, D.G. Van Clief Jr., recently admitted that “we have endeavored to adopt uniform rules governing the use of medications for years without success, despite the clear need to do so.”

Currently, horse racing is regulated by states. While the industry has developed model medication rules and penalties, which include a ban on anabolic steroids, states are not required to enact these measures. Numerous states have failed to adopt many—if any at all—of the model rules. Furthermore, countless jurisdictions added their own interpretations and modified the model rules after they were passed.

Eight years ago, Congress amended the Interstate Horseracing Act to give states the right to broadcast races across a variety of mediums at the same time. This simulcast right, as it is commonly called, permits patrons to bet on these broadcast races. This has proven to be an incredibly profitable venture for the industry.

Two weeks ago, I questioned NTRA CEO Alex Waldrop at a Congressional hearing that examined drug use in professional sports. I asked if he thought it would be unreasonable for Congress to rescind these simulcast rights if a state fails to adopt the industry’s model rules and penalties. He responded, “No.”

For nearly 30 years the industry has neglected to regulate drug use to the detriment of the horses, jockeys, fans, and the very integrity of American horse racing. The time has come for Congress to take the reins and find a way to eliminate drugs from horse racing.

Rep. Ed Whitfield is the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection.