Updated on 07/13/2012 10:46AM

Senate hearing checks racing industry’s interest in federal regulation


Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico used a three-hour Senate hearing on Thursday to gauge the level of support in the racing industry for federal regulation, at times threatening to scuttle the industry's federal authority to conduct state-to-state simulcast wagering if it did not address critics of its medication policies and regulation.

The hearing  - which was sparsely attended by legislators  - did not result in any firm resolutions that would dramatically impact the sport, though Udall said toward the end that he would continue to press forward on getting support for his legislation. Along with a House co-sponsor, Udall first introduced a bill calling for federal regulation of racing several years ago, but it has yet to come up for a vote at any level of the legislature.

"I'm trying to move proactively with a bill that will make a difference," Udall said.

Udall’s bill would supplant the power of state racing commissions and give authority over the sport’s rules to a federal agency, a prospect that has made many racing organizations uneasy. The legislation also would prohibit the use of “performance-enhancing drugs” – a prohibition that already exists in every racing state – and ban a trainer for life after three positive tests for a drug in that category.

The current version of the bill also would ban the race-day use of any drug, which would prohibit raceday administrations of the popular anti-bleeding medication furosemide, a diuretic that is currently legal to administer on race day in every North American racing jurisdiction. The issue of continuing to allow race-day use of furosemide has cleaved the U.S. racing industry over the past year.

The hearing was held at a time when racing has come under attack by its critics, most notably through a series of articles that have appeared in the New York Times. At the same time, the sport is wrestling with a rash of positives for a highly potent drug, dermorphin, that has turned up in Quarter Horse races and Thoroughbred races in at least two states, New Mexico and Louisiana, and it remains reeling from a spate of breakdowns at Aqueduct racetrack this winter and criticism over the rate at which horses suffer catastrophic injuries.

In his opening statements, Udall said that "corruption" had "run racing off the rails." He questioned the  eight witnesses that appeared on Thursday on whether the sport should apply lifetime bans to trainers with positives for drugs, and he frequently made use of words that indicated he believed the sport is suffering from a lack of adequate regulation.  And on several occasions, he threatened that the legislature could rescind racing's authority to conduct simulcast wagering by revoking the Interstate Horseracing Act, a 1978 bill.

It is not clear that the bill endorsed by Udall could pass without significant help from Republicans, who are loath to support legislation that would enlarge the federal government's role, especially in a Presidential election year. The House is controlled by Republicans, while Democrats control the Senate. The bill's sponsor in the House, Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, is a Republican.

Udall was the only member of the 25-seat Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to attend the hearing throughout its entirety. Only two other Senators made appearances during the hearing: Sen. Frank Lautenberg from New Jersey, and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who participated for about 15 minutes.

Jim Gagliano, the president of the Jockey Club, said at the hearing that the organization would support a "federal mechanism" that would lead to the national adoption of a set of rules proposed by the organization released earlier this year. Gagliano stopped short of directly saying that the Jockey Club would support Udall's bill, and he also said that the organization would be opposed to adding the bill to the Interstate Horseracing Act.

Previously, Jockey Club officials have stated that they would support any effort to "reform" the sport's medication policies, but they have never directly endorsed federal intervention. The comment on Thursday by Gagliano illustrates that the organization is willing to work with the federal government to effect the adoption of its rules, which contain stricter penalties for medication violations than currently exist in most racing jurisdictions. Like Udall's bill, the proposed rules would also ban the raceday use of furosemide, a provision that has emerged as a sticking point in getting the rules adopted wholesale at the state level because of opposition by many owners and trainers. Aside from the raceday furosemide ban, many organizations have said they support the remainder of the rules.

Barry Irwin, the owner of Team Valor International, told Udall that he supported federal regulation of the sport, a position that is endorsed by many prominent owners and breeders who say they are frustrated by the penalties doled out by racing commissions, which are many times appealed by trainers through the civil courts.

"Horse racing is in crisis," Irwin said. "The public views racing as being out of control. The federal government can help."

Other panelists who said they supported federal regulation were Dr. Sheila Lyons, a veterinarian who runs an equine rehabilitation farm; Jeffrey Gural, who owns two New York harness tracks and casinos; and Marc Paulhus, a former official of the Humane Society, who said racing was "incapable" of confronting the problems cited by its critics under the current state-by-state regulation structure.

Additional topics broached by Udall during the hearing included whether furosemide, commonly known as Lasix, should be banned on race day, and whether veterinarians should be required to make veterinary records for horses public. Dr. Lyons said she fully supported both a ban on raceday furosemide, which she called a performance-enhancing drug that "has done a lot of harm," and a requirement for veterinarians to provide veterinary records for every racehorse to regulators. She said the requirement would provide a deterrent to the illegal and unethical use of medication.

Lyons also said that it was a "betrayal" of veterinary standards and principles for trainers to treat horses who do not suffer from acute bleeding episodes with furosemide - which is administered to approximately 95 percent of all horses in North American on race day, even though  a small fraction of horses suffer severe bleeding episodes. She was also highly critical of the sport's veterinarians, saying that Thoroughbred horses are over-medicated.

" 'Race horse' is not a diagnosis," Lyons said.

Several panelists, however, defended racing, including Ed Martin, the president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, an umbrella group for state racing commissions, and Kent Stirling, the executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and protective Association and the chairman of the Medication Committee of the National HBPA. Both said that instances of real "doping" in racing are exceedingly uncommon, citing the results of an analysis of data from the year 2010 that showed that only 0.1 percent of all tests return a positive drug test for performance-enhancing medications.

"The evidence states conclusively that doping in United States horse racing is rare," Stirling said.

Martin defended state racing commissions and told Udall that federal regulation of racing would not solve the sport's problems. In addition, Martin said that racing would be better served by state legislatures adopting bills that would allow racing jurisdictions to cooperatively adopt model rules through a national racing compact, a project the RCI has endorsed for several years. Only Kentucky has passed legislation allowing the state to join the compact.