In what other professional sport is it acceptable for 24 athletes to die each week? With millions of Americans watching the Kentucky Derby this weekend, it’s an important time to take stock of the horseracing industry and the critical reforms that are needed to protect the welfare of its equine competitors—because the toll in animal deaths and injuries year after year is far too great and so many of them are preventable.
As Joe Drape reported in The New York Times, when lawmakers return to Washington after Derby weekend, a bipartisan group will introduce legislation to address the patchwork of state laws that govern horseracing and the ongoing failure of the industry to self-police. A previous New York Times study examined 150,000 horse races from 2009 to 2011 and found that minimal oversight, doped horses, and inconsistent regulations are putting both horses and jockeys in jeopardy.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Joe Pitts, R-Pa., plan to introduce the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which addresses many of the most serious issues faced by the horse racing industry. In an effort to give their horses an edge, trainers abuse illegal drugs such as cobra venom and South American tree frog juice, which are far more powerful than morphine. But legal therapeutic drugs are also problematic because they can allow a horse to push through pain, intensifying an injury which can lead to breakdowns, career ending injuries, and death.
If passed, the legislation would designate the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) as the independent anti-doping organization for interstate horseraces. USADA, a non-profit, non-governmental agency, is recognized by Congress as the official anti-doping agency for Olympic, Pan American, and Paralympic sports; it would create rules regarding the use in racing of permitted and prohibited substances and develop anti-doping education, research, testing, and adjudication programs. Any racetrack that wanted to offer “simulcast” wagering, where most of the industry’s money is made, would first need to have an agreement with USADA. That agreement would include covering the costs of the anti-doping measures. This bill would cost taxpayers nothing.
Currently each state’s racing commission sets its own rules, allowing trainers to escape oversight by simply moving to another state. With no national governing body for the sport—like an NHL, NFL, or NBA—there is no consistency across the country. The new legislation includes stiff penalties for cheating, a “one and done” lifetime ban for the most severe types of doping, a “three strikes, you’re out” for other serious medication violations, and suspensions for rules violations that apply nationwide. The bill will also prohibit race day medication of horses, with a ban on the use of furosemide (“Lasix”) to be phased in over two years.
The racing industry’s half-hearted attempts at reform have failed to protect race horses from being treated as disposable, rather than highly skilled athletes and companions, despite a number of high-profile incidents and scathing exposés. Just as Congress and the nation have taken seriously the problems of doping in baseball, bicycling, and other sports, it’s time to get serious about doping in horseracing. Please contact your two U.S. senators and your U.S. representative at (202) 224-3121, and urge them to support and cosponsor the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act.