03/28/2012 12:24PM

Legislators renew push for bill authorizing federal oversight of racing


The two co-sponsors of a bill introduced during last year’s Congress that would subject horse racing to federal regulation have said they will renew an effort to push for adoption of the legislation this year.

Late Tuesday, Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky, released a statement calling for support of the bill, which was opposed by most racing organizations after it was introduced last year. The other sponsor, Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, called for the passage of the bill Monday.

The impetus for the statements was a front-page article published in Sunday’s New York Times that linked injuries at U.S. racetracks to a lack of federal regulation of the sport and the abuse of drugs, largely through an analysis of Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred injuries at tracks in New Mexico. In his statement, Whitfield reiterated claims in the article that the use of drugs in racing was putting horses and jockeys in danger of being injured.

“For too long, the safety of jockeys and equine athletes has been neglected for the pursuit of racing profits,” Whitfield said. “The doping of injured horses and forcing them to compete is deplorable and must be stopped. Despite repeated promises from the racing industry to end this practice, voluntary meaningful action and oversight are not going to happen.”

Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, declined to comment on the effort to resurrect the legislation, which did not face a vote at any level of the federal government last year. Waldrop said he wanted to limit his response to a statement he released Tuesday that called the Times article a “sobering assessment of the safety and integrity of horse racing” and also called for the racing industry to adopt “nationwide reform in a more comprehensive, lasting way.”

Bob Curran, a spokesman for the Jockey Club, said officials at the organization would not comment on the legislative effort. The Jockey Club is one of the most influential organizations in racing.

Privately, many racing officials express skepticism that federal regulation would have any meaningful impact on injury rates at racetracks, though they acknowledge that the argument is politically palatable. Many critics of racing have cited the lack of a national oversight body for a myriad of problems afflicting the racing industry over the past decade, including the inability of states to adopt uniform rules and penalties that would apply to drug infractions.

Racing has been regulated at the state level for its entire existence, largely because of the reluctance of the federal government to get involved in the regulation of gambling. Regulations concerning gambling, including the operation of casinos, is currently the province of states.

The Whitfield-Udall bill would place regulation of racing and responsibility for the enforcement of the sport’s rules under the Food and Drug Administration. The bill also would prohibit the administration of drugs on raceday and ban any trainer whose horses test positive for “performance-enhancing drugs” three times. The bill does not specify what a ban would entail – many drugs are currently allowed to be in a horse’s system on raceday at levels that are not pharmacologically meaningful. Nor does the bill specify what drugs would be considered performance-enhancing.

In most racing jurisdictions, only one drug is allowed to be administered on raceday, the anti-bleeding medication furosemide. The drug is a diuretic that reduces capillary pressure and has been scientifically demonstrated to mitigate the effect of bleeding in the lungs. Several other states allow for the administration of so-called “adjunct bleeder medications” in conjunction with furosemide, but the racing industry has begun to initiate efforts to phase those rules out.

The Times article was the first in a series the newspaper plans to run on injuries in horse racing. On Tuesday, the newspaper’s editorial board contended that the main reason for the injuries was drugs and said that a “powerful combination of money, secrecy, and inattention has blocked progress and left the industry as compromised and dangerous as ever.”

In New Mexico, the executive director of the racing commission said Wednesday that the commission plans to implement an out-of-competition testing program beginning in July. The program will allow commission personnel to draw samples from horses at New Mexico tracks that have not been entered to race, largely to test for drugs that have long-lasting effects but remain difficult to detect if administered far out from a race, such as erythropoietin, a blood-doping drug.