06/18/2008 11:00PM

Much bluster but no solutions

Email

NEW YORK - The first round of Congressional hearings into "Breeding, Drugs, and Breakdowns" in Washington on Thursday morning was a predictably unfocused collection of racing facts and fictions that did little to provide an answer to the central question it was convened to address: Is federal intervention necessary to police the sport?

The hearings, telecast on CSpan-3 and available on the Internet, consisted mostly of prepared statements from the hosts and two panels of guests. There were opening statements from representatives who are members of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, then from prominent industry figures, and finally from veterinary and welfare experts. The quality and importance of the thoughts expressed improved in each of the three phases.

Shockingly, the congresspeople were poorly informed, imperious, and inflammatory. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the acting chair, got the proceedings off to a factually-challenged start with her flat declarations that "Horses are doped up on cocaine" and that "many experts say Eight Belles was a disaster waiting to happen."

"To professional breeders, her pedigree should have raised alarm," Schakowsky said, "but they went on with her anyway." It's a shame that not one of the better qualified witnesses who followed disputed this outrageous characterization of a tragic accident that befell a perfectly sound horse.

Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) stated that "the National Football League suspends players for dog-fighting but racing allows the drugging of horses" with steroids, a bizarre analogy between a criminally felonious bloodsport and the administration of a legal medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Several of the elected officials referred to their "right" to step in and regulate horse racing because horse racing came to Congress to pass the Interstate Horse Racing Act in 1978 to permit simulcasting, and to amend the Wire Act in 2006 to clarify that simulcasting was not newly illegal under an Internet-gambling prohibition buried in a Port Security Act. This is a novel interpretation of justifying federal intervention based on reciprocity for past assistance.

All but one of the familiar and respected witnesses on the first panel - Arthur Hancock, Jess Jackson, Randy Moss, Richard Shapiro, and Jack Van Berg - said they are so frustrated and disheartened by drugs in racing that the government should step in and do something. The problem with their statements was that none of them said precisely what should be done, effectively issuing a blanket invitation for the government to chase every wild goose of an issue that has been raised since the Kentucky Derby. The lone dissenter on the panel, Alan Marzelli of the Jockey Club, was quickly cast as the obstructionist villain by the committee for saying he agrees that racing should be led by a central body, but one led by the industry rather than the government.

Van Berg was the best of the group, calling for a federal mandate to increase funding for drug testing.

Jackson, properly hailed for continuing to campaign Curlin this year, wandered all over the racing map from inbreeding to simulcast rates, unfortunately speaking with greatest passion about what a poor return owners supposedly get on their investment in racing. He also managed to ignore the sport's fan base by claiming that owners are the game's only stakeholders because they supposedly invest $4 billion a year, ignoring the public's $15 billion annual parimutuel handle.

Alex Waldrop of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association was in fact the only witness even to mention the betting public, saying "The last thing this industry needs is another layer of bureaucracy funded by yet another tax on our long-suffering customers."

Jackson further suggested that the Interstate Horse Racing Act be amended specifically to exclude trainers from having any approval over simulcast signals because they are "only agents for the owners," a petty and irrelevant assertion. He also failed to correct two committee members' misunderstanding of his statement that he buys some bloodstock from Europe and South America as a refusal to buy any horses bred in the United States.

The veterinarians - Wayne McElwraithe, Mary Scollay, Lawrence Soma, and Sue Stover - were excellent and on far more solid ground than the politicians, telling a generally positive story of ongoing research and data-collection efforts. The most compelling testimony of the proceedings came from Allie Conrad of the horse-rescue group CANTER. She spoke of her personal experience rescuing broken-down and abandoned horses and the shockingly low level of funding from industry organizations. While not as sexy a story as anabolic steroids, it's a more important one.

Perhaps by the next session of hearings later this summer, both the industry's and the capitol's thinkers will have a clearer idea of what should happen next. It's easy to say that drugs are bad and something must be done, but Thursday's hearings provided little insight into what that something is and how strongly the government should be involved in it.