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Lines drawn over regulation
Congressional leaders said Thursday during a hearing in Washington that a bill would be introduced this year putting in place some form of federal regulation of horse racing, including restrictions on drug use.
The intention to introduce legislation was made by members of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection during a hearing entitled "Breeding, Drugs, and Breakdowns." Somewhat surprisingly, the majority of racing officials who appeared on the committee's first panel agreed with the contention that racing needs a national governing authority, and several said that all race-day drugs - including the ubiquitous diuretic furosemide and the painkiller phenylbutazone - should be banned, in line with other major racing countries around the world.
In response to a question posed by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois and vice chair of the subcommittee, all six racing officials on the hearing's first panel said that performance-enhancing drugs should be banned. Four of the racing representatives - Arthur Hancock, the owner of Stone Farm; Jess Jackson, the owner of Stonestreet Stables; Randy Moss, the television analyst; and Jack Van Berg, the Hall of Fame trainer - went even further, calling for a ban on all drugs.
Van Berg described U.S. racing's liberal medication policies as "pharmaceutical warfare," while others contended that racing veterinarians and trainers were widely abusing drugs because of the pressures of competition and the potential to profit from administering both legal and illegal medication.
"We have to stop it," said Jackson, the majority owner of the 2007 Horse of the Year, Curlin. "We have to stop it cold. Zero tolerance."
The panelists were not entirely representative of the racing industry's stance on drugs; Hancock and Jackson have long been outspoken about problems in the industry and have consistently called for reforms. Many horsemen's groups and veterinary associations strongly support liberal policies on medication and would be expected to lobby aggressively against any rollback to the days of hay, oats, and water.
Nearly every controversial subject in racing was raised by committee members during the three-hour hearing, which was scheduled after the industry endured intense public scrutiny because of the breakdown of Eight Belles after she finished second in the Kentucky Derby. Among the myriad subjects were the alleged unsoundness of the modern Thoroughbred; the lack of uniform rules in racing's 38 states; the welfare of retired racehorses; and the industry's effort to regulate the administration of anabolic steroids.
One witness called by the subcommittee did not show up: Richard Dutrow Jr., the trainer of Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Big Brown. It was reported that Dutrow told the committee in advance that he could not attend the hearing; Schakowsky said that Dutrow did not inform the committee of his absence, but that she had heard Dutrow said he was too ill to travel. Dutrow had been expected to face questioning over his numerous medication violations and his acknowledgment during the Triple Crown that Big Brown and all of his horses regularly receive legal injections of anabolic steroids.
Most representatives of racing expressed deep frustration with the inability of the industry to operate under a uniform set of rules, a contention that lent support to the concept of federal oversight. But other racing representatives resisted the call for federal regulation, notably Alan Marzelli, the president of The Jockey Club, and Alex Waldrop, the president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
In one exchange with Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky who is the ranking minority member of the committee, Marzelli said that the industry was better served by self-regulation, citing The Jockey Club's recent call for a ban on toe grabs and its support for the rule being adopted in many states that regulates anabolic steroids. But Marzelli acknowledged that The Jockey Club has no enforcement power, drawing a remark from Whitfield that a federal commission could mandate what The Jockey Club was recommending.
"It's accomplishing what you want," Whitfield said. "So why would you oppose it?"
"I would like to see the industry regulate itself," Marzelli answered.
Privately, many racing industry officials contend that the sport would be opened up to the lobbying efforts of uninvolved interest groups if the sport were regulated federally. The fear is that specialized groups such as animal-rights organizations would press for practices and policies that would be against the industry's best interests. In addition, racing officials say that the government could pass so-called "unfunded mandates" that would put financial stress on an already struggling industry.
Richard Shapiro, the chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, said that he would support federal regulation of the sport "as a means of last resort," while criticizing other racing states for not being aggressive enough in adopting anti-medication policies. Shapiro was highly critical of the racing industry's drug policies.
"The root of the problem today is medication, and my fear is that as medication is being used in the breed and being bred into the breed, they are masking infirmities," Shapiro said.
Support for a prohibition on the race-day administration of furosemide - a diuretic known as Lasix that is used to treat bleeding in the lungs - came from Dr. Larry Soma, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. Soma reiterated the results of research that showed that furosemide has not demonstrated any efficacy in stopping bleeding and said that the drug was being used only as a performance-enhancing agent, citing research showing that horses administered the drug run faster and finish better than horses who do not receive a race-day injection.
Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, said that the subcommittee will likely hold an additional hearing in the next month. After that hearing, members of the subcommittee will decide whether to introduce legislation.
"This hearing is a wake-up call for you," Stearns said. "There is an abuse in your industry. . . . We are asking you to step up to the plate."