04/30/2012 12:31PM

House members hear pro-government regulation, anti-medication testimony

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Members of the racing industry who support the passage of federal legislation to regulate the sport and ban the raceday use of the anti-bleeding medication furosemide made their cases on Monday in front of a House subcommittee hearing held at a school in Pennsylvania.

With frequent invocations of alleged drug abuse in racing, the panelists, which included a Hall of Fame jockey, several trainers, three owner-breeders, and two veterinarians, appeared before the subcommittee in an effort to push for a bill that would hand authority over the sport to the federal government. Three members of the 27-member Subcommittee on Health attended the hearing, along with two other House representatives from Pennsylvania. All five representatives are Republicans.

The hearing lasted 2 ½ hours, during which all but one of the panelists, the trainer Ken McPeek, said that the alleged use of drugs was both widespread and crippling the sport. All eight panelists said that they supported the federal legislation, which has been introduced by Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican, and Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, though McPeek said that he supported the bill as a way to simplify the array of regulations that are applied to trainers in the 38 different racing jurisdictions in the U.S.

The hearing was an outgrowth of the effort led by many high-profile organizations in racing, including the Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and the Breeders’ Cup, to push for reforms that would ban the use of furosemide and possibly limit the use of other drugs. Simultaneously, the hearing was held against a backdrop in which the sport’s record on catastrophic injuries has come under close scrutiny, including in two articles in the New York Times that have contended that drug use and lax state regulation have significantly contributed to racetrack deaths. The second article in the multi-part series was published in the Times on Monday morning.

One of the panelists, George Strawbridge, a Pennsylvania breeder who races under the name Augustin Stable, told the subcommittee members that the sport has gained a “negative perception” because of the use of drugs, and he urged the committee members to push for the bill. Another was Gretchen Jackson, whose Lael Stable owned and bred Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner who broke down in the Preakness and ultimately had to be euthanized from complications of the injury. Jackson told the committee members that “drugs have insidiously penetrated into the world of horseracing, endangering both horse and rider.”

Kathryn Papp, a racetrack practitioner based in Pennsylvania, said during her testimony that the abuse of both performance-enhancing drugs and therapeutic medications was “widespread,” though her testimony principally focused on the use of therapeutic drugs, which are regulated by state law. And Glenn Thompson, a trainer in New Jersey who last year self-published a book alleging widespread drug abuse among rival trainers, said that “there is a culture of drugs that has taken over racing,” while saying that the vast majority of trainers abuse drugs.

Panel members, including the chairman, Joe Pitts, appeared to take the panelists at their word, and many cited the New York Times articles as proof that the sport has a drug problem. However, as Republicans, the panelists could run into problems with their leadership if they plan to push a bill increasing federal regulation, and several, including Whitfield, pointedly noted during the hearing that he has personal reservations against federal oversight. His statement was echoed by Rep. Michael Burgess, from Texas.

“Sometimes our involvement creates new and unforeseen problems,” Burgess said.

Critics of the sport’s use of drugs have pushed for federal legislation because of unsuccessful efforts to achieve medication reform at the state level. For the most part, those efforts have been blocked by trainer’s groups, who contend that the use of drugs is already highly regulated by state racing commissions, and that the use of furosemide on raceday is an effective treatment for bleeding in the lungs.

Dr. Greg Ferraro, a former racetrack practitioner who since 1998 has been the director of the Center for Equine Health at University of California-Davis, said that he had formerly supported the use of furosemide on raceday and the liberal use of painkillers as a way to help horses withstand the rigors of racing and training. But he said he had come to believe he was mistaken after seeing little progress being made in reducing injuries at tracks, and he said that he now supported federal legislation.

“There is virtually no way in which you are going to get any kind of consistent rules to control these drugs without it,” Ferraro said.

McPeek was the only panelist who said that drugs are not commonly abused, and he countered statements about “reckless disregard” for racehorse health by saying that the treatment of injuries and the use of drugs was a complex issue. He also said that drugs do not have the capabilities that some critics ascribe to them, citing one of the horses he trained, Tejano Run, who was second in the 1995 Kentucky Derby.

“You could feed him rocks and Budweiser and he’d still go out and win,” McPeek said about the horse.

Shot back Thompson: “That’d be because of the Budweiser, they’d say.”