04/29/2016 3:46PM

Hovdey: Fight over Lasix keeps racing from moving the needle


Call me crazy, but I’ve always loved a good congressional hearing. They can be captivating, comic, enlightening, and embarrassing by turns. There is something about the setting, so earnest and formal, that creates an unavoidable impression that something very serious is going on, even when it’s not.

The McCarthy hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee set a high standard for twisted drama in the early 1950s. Then came the Kefauver hearings targeting the mob. The Watergate hearings remain the gold standard – what did the president know, and when did he know it? – but there were also the hearings that flowed from the Kennedy assassination, the compelling Church hearings into the CIA, the Iran-Contra hearings of President Reagan’s second term, and the more recent hearings into the attack on the American embassy in Libya.

Our tax dollars at work.

While not technically a formal hearing, the question-and-information session held Thursday in Washington by the Congressional Horse Caucus provided another chance for racing’s stakeholders to consider the intricacies of the Thoroughbred Horse Racing Integrity Act, known on the Hill as H.R. 3084.

Yes, there is a Congressional Horse Caucus. How many would have lost that bet?

Chaired by U.S. Reps. Andy Barr (R.-Ky.) and Paul Tonko (D.-N.Y.), the Horse Caucus is carrying the water for the legislation that would nationalize drug testing for the Thoroughbred industry. There were five industry panelists at the Thursday session, including Craig Fravel, president of Breeders’ Cup Ltd., and Bobby Flay, who is an owner and breeder when he’s not busy being a celebrity chef.

It is hard to argue that a uniform set of drug-test standards would do anything but help both the execution and reputation of Thoroughbred racing in the U.S. Inconsistencies abound, but years of attempts to have the various racing states come together have crawled by without much more than token results.

As described in the bill, a federal testing program would be funded by the racing industry and administered with racing-industry representatives. The bogeyman of Big Government has been deployed by opponents who for some reason trust the individual states to get it right, in the face of evidence to the contrary.

The organization that would be tasked with a federal testing program for Thoroughbred racing is the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which is affiliated with the umbrella World Anti-Doping Agency, heard from primarily in regards to the testing of Olympic athletes. USADA is under the same scrutiny that WADA has recently leveled upon the Russian Anti-Doping Agency for lax enforcement, and for a testing laboratory used by the Chinese sports authorities. U.S. horse racing would be a drop in the anti-doping bucket of the international sports world, but at least the company would be powerful. Still, an issue isn’t worth its salt unless there is an elephant in the room. Fravel cut through the clutter of nitpicking the bill to death and released the pachyderm by uttering the magical, industry-dividing word: Lasix.

Lasix is overused and underregulated, but there is little chance of it being eliminated wholesale, at least in the short term, unless forbidden by federal legislation. There’s the rub.

Opponents of the legislation are not convinced by any of the anti-Lasix arguments: that the breed has been weakened, that allowing race-day administration opens the door to other, illegal substances, or that the gambling public cares deeply about its use. As a result, opponents fear that the imposition of a federal testing program eventually would lead to the prohibition of race-day medication, which means Lasix.

Nowhere in H.B. 3084 is there a literal requirement for ending race-day medication, although Paragraph 4 of Section 2 does contain the following somewhat-ominous wording:

“The use of therapeutic medications in Thoroughbred horse racing in the United States must place the health and welfare of the horse at the highest level of priority while achieving consistency with the uses permitted in major international Thoroughbred horse-racing jurisdictions including the use of race-day medication.”

Nowhere has the case been made as to why consistency with major international jurisdictions is a compelling reason for a federalized testing program, other than through opinions like the one shared at the session by Flay, who is also a member of the boards of the Breeders’ Cup and the New York Racing Association. Flay noted that he buys more horses from Europe these days because American horses have a reputation of being awash in drugs and tainted by race-day medications, and fellow breeders are feeling the pinch.

Clearly, proponents of the bill are asking for legislative relief in the pursuit of international commerce, which is a pragmatic goal but hardly noble and should not be cloaked in concerns for the welfare of the animal. Besides, the idea that an American legislator can be convinced to vote for something because France or England is doing it seems far-fetched.

There is no simple solution. But with a bit of compromise, the offending “major international horse-racing jurisdictions” passage could be removed, thus depriving opposition of a significant talking point.