Promises of reform have been made in the horse racing industry – and broken. Industry leaders testified before a Senate committee Thursday with their suggestions to get racing back on the right track, including banning horse trainers who cheat.
Democratic Senator Tom Udall from New Mexico and Republican Congressman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky introduced the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act, which specifically seeks stiffer penalties for those who violate the rules, and federal oversight. The bill would also prohibit race day medications and performance enhancing drugs. Udall says action is needed. “Now it’s time to end the abuse. It’s time to restore integrity to this sport.”
Barry Irwin, Chief Executive Officer of Team Valor International, owner of the 2011 Kentucky Derby Winner, testified the industry needs federal oversight. “State racing commissions, with few exceptions, do a lousy job of identifying cheaters, investigating them and adjudicating them. Reasons include lack of will, lack of sufficient funding, lack of qualified personnel and failure to prevail in court against cheaters.”
The Jockey Club’s President, Jim Gagliano says his group’s core belief is that horses should compete only when they are free from the influence of medication. “We strongly believe that our sport needs uniform rules, tough new penalties, and effective enforcement to ensure clean competition and improvements in racing safety.” He says the organization has advocated for the adoption of the Reformed Racing Medication Rules by the state racing commissions, however the changes have been slow.
While the general consensus is similar between the eight experts regarding performance enhancing drugs, Kent Stirling says his organization, the National Horseman’s Benevolent & Protective Association, does not oppose the use of Lasix. The medication, which is given about four hours before a horse race, prevents bleeding in the lungs during racing, which he says is necessary to keep a horse healthy. “Lasix is not doping and no one can reasonably conclude otherwise.”
Dr. Shelia Lyons, a leading veterinarian who also testified, rejects that statement. Lyons, the founder and director of The American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, says research shows Lasix does enhance a horse’s performance on the track. A pilot study cites dehydration and improved oxygen carrying capabilities as possible reasons.
Lyons also notes the drug has not ended exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage and contributes to many health problems ranging from dehydration to cardiac failure.
Lasix is banned at major tracks internationally on race day – except for in the United States.
Stirling says, “Lasix is being swept up in the media hysteria over alleged doping of horses with illegal drugs, aided and abetted by organizations that should know better.”
He also criticizes the media’s reporting of positive post race drug test results of therapeutic medications, such as bute, which he categorizes as similar to Aspirin or Aleve for humans.
The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Senator John Rockefeller IV, states the inappropriate use of otherwise therapeutic medications in racehorses has plagued the sport. “Medication such as phenylbuterol or “bute” can legitimately help in the healing process of an ailing horse. But when bute is used to mask pain on an unsound horse so that he or she can race on the track, the drug becomes an abusive practice that puts the life of the horse and jockey at risk,” says Rockefeller.
Lyons says the solution begins with higher standards for veterinarians, even where therapeutic drugs are concerned. “As the treating veterinarian I should report the treatment along with its therapeutic context for review so that if it meets the industry burden for “performance enhancing or injury masking” then my patient should not be allowed to compete until the drug is out of its system.”
She says the system currently works in reverse, “veterinarians and horsemen look to the “limits” set by racing commissions for drug levels and dosing schedules as permission to administer them, non-therapeutically and outside of the standards in practice that regulate the veterinary profession as long as they do not exceed those limits.”
The American Quarter Horse Association wants the industry to regulate itself, and is opposed to federal intervention. That opinion is shared by the National Horseman’s Benevolent & Protective Association according to Stirling.
Betting and simulcast racing are already regulated federally, however Rockefeller says if something doesn’t change regarding the integrity of the sport, he is prepared to examine whether tracks deserve the privilege.