Once again, the Thoroughbred racing industry is at loggerheads, only this time appearing before a Congressional Subcommittee hearing which has held these types of inquiries before but perhaps none as meaningful.
Never has the industry faced an existential crisis of major proportions. “Too big to fail” is no longer a justifiable defense for a sport whose end-product is more about the sales ring than what happens between the fences.
Everyone knows why this is happening, even though some version of the Horseracing Integrity Act has been kicking around since 2015 which, by Capitol Hill standards, is the blink of an eye.
On one side people are fighting hard for the lives of horses and the men and women who ride them. On the other are champions of the upperdog who invoke the health of the bottom line in order to maintain the status quo.
The solutions proposed by the latter never go quite far enough. What replaces doing the right thing is to question process, making a call for compromise knowing all too well that patchwork unity has never worked.
This ersatz search for middle ground is the same kind of hypocrisy practiced by those in Washington who would save the country’s top executive at the cost of a democratic republic. But I digress.
As was widely reported in racing publications, Bloodhorse and the Thoroughbred Daily News, to name just two, speaking for the health of the living and breathing was a Hall of Fame jockey who won over 7,000 races.
Another advocating for the Horseracing Integrity Act was the former CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club who is now an advisor to the Humane Society of America.
In favor of those who hesitate to turn a page and would keep the present frozen in time is a person whose organization would become anachronistic if legislation is enacted, and another who represents a group that would take an economic hit if raceday medication were eliminated.
The bipartisan bill – which in this climate should put the legislation over the top without further discussion – would have the United States Anti-Doping Agency form an authority including major industry players to regulate medication rules, policies, testing and sanctions.
Indeed, the elephant in the room that H.R. 1754 would attempt to carry across the finish line is the elimination of raceday medication, legal and otherwise, a policy that would end the use of Lasix in competition.
“Instead of giving the animal the rest it needs, a trainer can rely on his/her veterinarian to administer a medication to mask pain by reducing inflammation caused by an injury,” said Chris McCarron. “This bill directly addresses one of the leading causes of breakdowns.”
“The bar for effectively detecting and punishing cheaters is so low that it is difficult to fail,” reasoned Joe DeFrancis.
“Each trainer knows what they’re being tested for and when they are being tested. There is little if any out-of-competition testing, the kind of testing that has proven so effective in catching athletes who dope in Olympic sports,” DeFrancis concluded.
In favor of maintaining the 38-state patchwork with enhancements and modifications, effectively protecting the franchise, was Ed Martin, President of the Association of Racing Commissioners International.
“I don’t think this bill as presently written is going to improve the integrity of the sport,” said Martin.
“But I think it would improve the integrity of the sport if it were to take [a non-governmental organization and turn it into a multi-jurisdictional investigative organization] to do out-of-competition testing as well as out-of-competition suitability exams that are red-flagged because of their vet records and procedures.”
Promises of meaningful enhancements puts lipstick on the same-old pig even if the stricter protocols advanced by Santa Anita’s management group has enjoyed statistical success with improved protocols. And at least the company continues to walk its talk; as the Lasix-less Pegasus Cup proved.
The Thoroughbred industry has had decades to police itself and clean up its act. But if it were not for the fact that 37 horses lost their lives last winter at Santa Anita, the raceday medication elephant would remain in a lockbox.
After the hearing concluded, the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, comprised of a 14-member majority of leading Thoroughbred stakeholders and racetracks, issued a statement re continuing industry-led advanced safety measures with a promise to enact meaningful change.
But the industry has had decades to accomplish these goals. The major group yet to endorse medication reform is the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, who use their veto power to stop simulcasting in its tracks.
The final version of HIA must address this roadblock. Absent independent national uniformity, no effort to clean up the game will succeed in a meaningful way.
If there’s a segment of horse racing that has reason to embrace the status quo on raceday medication it’s the harness industry, which did not get a seat at the table. Indeed, Mike Tanner, Executive Vice-President of the United States Trotting Association, was interviewed but not selected to appear.
And the irony is that harness owners will pay more than Thoroughbred counterparts to fund the proposed commission established by the possible legislation.
With an anticipated $43-45 per-start fee, and with the average Standardbred racing 18 times per year on average, compared to six for Thoroughbreds, it will cost harness owners more.
There are other fundamentals to have different rules for different breeds considering the routine way each sport is conducted.
Many harness juveniles, e.g., begin their careers without Lasix though they gravitate to it with age. The ARCI, which passed 12 harness specific model-rules amendments last August in Saratoga, acknowledges that separate standards may be appropriate.
Statistics indicate that Standardbreds sustain three times the damage of Thoroughbreds in the course of a racing year and can race until age 14. Both breeds train and race with Lasix, but “training miles” are a routine part of maintaining condition in Standardbreds.
As in Thoroughbred racing, most violations are a result of therapeutic medication overages. But unlike the crop flap at Santa Anita last season, sanctions for whipping violations and kicking that abuse the animal, as well as dangerous interference infractions, already exists.
Racetracks in various states for either breed fail to report catastrophic injuries. But the USTA has statistics for both breeds that, according to the California Horse Racing Board database, are eye-opening.
A decade’s worth of statistics on racing in California was compiled from 2009 through 2018. [Thoroughbred starters in 2009 was an estimated 45,000].
During this period all Standardbreds made 83,592 starts at Cal-Expo, compared to 381,531 Thoroughbred starters state-wide. There were 914 Thoroughbred fatalities during this time. While the numbers have improved markedly since, that translates to 2.40 deaths per 1000 starters.
The Standardbred ledger shows seven fatalities. In five of the 10 years, there were no fatalities; the mortality rate was 0.08 per 1000 starters. Given that Standardbreds annually race three times more often, raceday medication in harness racing seems to be working as intended, therapeutically.
Thoroughbred racing if a different game, of course. “Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good; we need to take action right away,” DeFrancis added. “Every day we delay we’re losing more and more public support, more and more fans, more and more customers. And it’s getting that much more difficult to get them back.”
Said HIA co-sponsor Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY): “We’re all in theory talking about the same goals, and yet each of you [who testified against it] opposes the very piece of legislation that would make [uniformity] a reality instead of a tired talking point.”