The US racing industry has had decades to clean up its act, but has been unable to do so, according to the head of the Humane Society of the United States.
Its acting president and chief executive, Kitty Block, says the lack of strong and consistent national oversight of American racing, together with the existing fragmented state regulatory system, endangers both horses and jockeys,
Block testified today before US House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection in support of a bill that would provide federal oversight of the US racing industry.
Block argued that the current fragmented regulatory structure led to inconsistent and confusing rules and decreased vital public support for the industry.
“It is past time that all members of the horse racing industry, including trainers and veterinarians, accept the fact that policing themselves is not working and that the integrity of the sport is at a crossroads,” she told lawmakers.
“Without reform, including the passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act, horses and jockeys will continue to be at risk, and fans will increasingly support clean sports where champions are determined based on athletic prowess, not a syringe loaded with performance-enhancing drugs.”
Block said the society was not, in principle, opposed to horse racing. “As an animal protection organization, our interest is in improving the welfare and treatment of all animals — including racehorses.
“We believe that everyone who makes or has made a living from the horse racing industry has a moral obligation to take all reasonable steps necessary to protect and enhance the welfare of the horses who are the heart and soul of the sport and the business.
“We seek to promote the proper care of racehorses both during and after their racing careers, including minimizing risks during training and racing.”
Block said the HSUS had probed racing-related issues for decades, visiting tracks and talking to horsemen and women and others within the industry.
She said the society was surprised not only by the absence of a national regulatory body for an industry operating widely and engaging in interstate commerce and wagering, but also by the disparity between racing regulation in the US and those in Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and other nations also with proud racing traditions.
The US, she said, was lagging behind.
Block said horse racing was successful in Britain and Australia without the use of race-day medications which are not permitted on the basis that they are considered performance enhancing.
“In the US, these drugs are administered to virtually every horse that races, a circumstance at odds with standards imposed virtually everywhere else in the world.”
Block said while many professional sports had taken crucial steps to rid their sports of illegal drugging, the racing industry continued to lag behind — “not because of a lack of leadership, but because too many players want to maintain the status quo, which allows them to circumvent regulatory oversight.”
She said the illegal substances was not the only problem.
“Legal therapeutic drugs are also problematic as they can allow a horse to push through pain, intensifying an injury which can lead to breakdowns, career ending injuries, and death.
“In addition to side effects and unfair advantages, overuse and abuse of legal drugs administered too close to a race can hide existing injury or lameness.”
Block argued that the Horseracing Integrity Act would address the pervasive drug use in the industry, and — as its name suggested — begin to restore some integrity to horse racing, helping both the horses and the business.
The legislation would create the Horseracing AntiDoping and Medication Control Authority under the governance of the US Anti-Doping Agency. The bill would ensure centralized and consistent rulemaking and enforcement around drug use.
“Further, the enforcement activities envisioned by this legislation would cost the taxpayers nothing as the industry would, rightfully, bear all costs.”
The bill would ban race-day medication of horses. “Horses who need drugs to race should not be enlisted into competition with a cocktail of legal or illegal drugs that could put their safety in jeopardy.
“This change in policy is urgently needed because the administering of performance-enhancing drugs is unfair to just about everyone involved in racing — to clean trainers and owners and to the fans who wager on the outcome of races, and importantly to the horses themselves.
“This industry has had decades to clean up its act, but has been unable to do so. This is neither an impulsive government intervention nor an unnecessary one. It comes after the premature deaths of thousands of horses, declining fan interest in horse racing, and a general crisis of confidence in the sport.
“Horse racing is a national industry, and it demands consistent standards rather than the current patchwork of racing regulations,” she said.
“There are 38 pari-mutuel racing jurisdictions in the US, with about 100 racetracks, that include Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse and Standardbred (harness) racing.
“Each state sets up its own rules with respect to medicating of horses, yet horses and their trainers routinely move between the states for races.”
This patchwork of state laws had proven dangerous to horses and unfair to racing fans and to responsible owners and trainers, she said.
“Even the best testing in the United States falls constantly behind as the cheaters in the industry are known to experiment with anything that might give them an edge, including Viagra, blood-doping agents, stimulants, cancer drugs, cocaine, ‘pig juice,’ and ‘frog juice,’ an amino acid found naturally in certain species of frogs.”
Frog juice (dermorphin) is 40 times more powerful than morphine and is used to mask an injured horse’s pain.
Block said it was not reasonable to expect each state to develop its own drug-monitoring apparatus to keep up with the drug users in the industry who were constantly trying to stay ahead of testing protocol.
“A single expert association is needed that is both independent and capable of conducting cutting-edge research and rigorous enforcement.”
Block said Congress had, for the past decade, seriously wrestled with the problem of healthy American horses being funneled into the slaughter pipeline, including horses coming from the racing industry.
Many racehorses that have been negatively impacted by drugs, and have injuries, were often sent to slaughter to for disposal once the horses are no longer able to run, she said.
“Quarter horses are the most common breed sent to slaughter. This problem highlights both excessive breeding among racing breeds and the challenge of dealing with ‘surplus horses’ cast aside by owners and trainers who don’t want to or are unable to bear the expense of providing lifetime care for the horses.
“They sell horses to ‘kill buyers’ and make a couple of hundred dollars, or they pass on the cost to the animal welfare community by turning the animal over to a sanctuary or rescue organization.
“Responsibly retiring and ensuring quality of life for racehorses at the conclusion of their racing careers is an industry and owner responsibility.”
Block said that while too many horses still lack a sufficient safety net after their racing careers, the society was encouraged by some of the industry initiatives for Thoroughbred aftercare, including the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and Thoroughbred Charities of America.
“There is still work to do, but we are optimistic about the prospects for even better and more innovative programs for aftercare in the racing industry.”
The key to a former racehorse’s prospects for a successful transition to a new career is retiring from racing without health and lameness issues. “Horses who are healthy when they retire from racing are in a far better position to transition to second careers and far less likely to end up in the slaughter pipeline.”
She continued: “As we have seen repeatedly across a wide range of industries, any industry that takes shortcuts on animal welfare or cheats or misleads the public will see a loss in public support.
“Undeniably, for a variety of reasons, the horse racing industry is in decline and people have a wider array of gaming options than ever.
“It is critical that the industry strive to meet the highest standards of animal care and honesty — an achievable goal for the horse racing industry.”
Block urged lawmakers “to do what’s best for an industry that needs Congress help establishing comprehensive national standards to prevent widespread cheating within its ranks”.
“We shouldn’t put horses’ lives at risk when there is an alternate path.”