02/26/2016 11:06AM

Simon: Bill to clean up horse racing goes nowhere

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Those hoping that the federal government would ride to the rescue of racing and rid the game of cheaters through legislative initiative got another dose of reality, wrapped in inertia, on Wednesday. In a move that has not received much publicity, the two sponsors of the Barr-Tonko bill authored a letter that was sent via e-mail to members of the Water Hay Oats Alliance and essentially said that the bill was going nowhere, but they’re still trying. Where their effort goes from here, if anywhere, is the question, as well as if there’s another alternative to take for those who want to prevent trainers from cheating and to ensure a clean sport.

The co-authors of the letter are U.S. Reps. Andy Barr (R.-Ky.) and Paul Tonko (D.-N.Y.), they of H.R. 3084, the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015, which would establish an independent Thoroughbred Horseracing Anti-Doping Authority to oversee rules and regulations, including the establishment of uniform medication guidelines and testing.

The WHOA letter said in part, “H.R. 3084, the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015, was introduced in the House of Representatives on July 16, 2015. As is customary, the bill was immediately referred to the appropriate committee of jurisdiction. In our case, the bill was referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which Congressman Tonko is a member, and specifically to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade. As of today, the bill has yet to receive further action in committee.”

The two noted that a total of 4,397 bills had been introduced during the current Congress, and 1,000 of those were introduced to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“Needless to say,” the letter continued, “advancing legislation like H.R. 3084 among the 1,000 bills referred to the committee requires political capital, persistent lead sponsors, and a large, dedicated coalition willing to provide the grassroots support necessary for legislative proposals to gain true traction. And despite H.R. 3084 not yet receiving official action within the committee, it is our belief that we have made great strides on behalf of our reform efforts.

“We always understood this to be a process, and that introducing the legislation was the beginning of this process, not the end. We remain committed to our shared goals of clean sport, fair competition, safety for all participants, and restoring integrity to the great American sport of horse racing.”

Among the many reasons the bill has stalled is that it has not received the undivided support of the racing community. Some owner and breeder organizations have backed the initiative, but not all, while other organizations, notably those with a vocal trainer constituency, are adamantly opposed. Racetracks generally have been mute on the issue, and silence from powerful quarters can speak volumes to those outside of racing. Getting anything approved in Congress today is difficult, and any initiative that does not have the support of the industry it is supposedly trying to help has little chance of passage.

This is not the first time some members of the federal government have looked at drugs in racing and threatened the industry that it would get involved if racing did not clean its own house. It has been going on for years.

In 1980, Sen. David Prior from Arkansas introduced the Corrupt Horse Racing Practices Act. It was similar in some respects to the most recent effort since the purpose of that bill, with such a scary-sounding name to the public, was to prohibit the administration of any “foreign substance” to a horse within 24 hours before a race and to require prerace testing, minimum laboratory standards, and impose severe penalties for any offenders, including prison time. The bill came at a time of pressure from the Humane Society of the United States amid cries of animal abuse. The bill would have – gulp – put racing under the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Agency, an arm of the Justice Department.

A Senate subcommittee on criminal law hearing took place in May 1981, chaired by Sen. Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland, and a lot of sturm and drang dominated the proceedings, but nothing came of it. Getting a bill out of subcommittee was as difficult then as today, especially since all the forces in racing were against this idea at that time.

The topic never really leaves racing, though, and the issue hovered around the edges for years, with some owners and breeders calling for a complete ban on all race-day medications, including Lasix, but again, unanimity of opinion in racing prevented the issue from taking too strong a hold on the sport.

The issue surfaced again in Congress five years ago due to some high-profile stories about breakdowns in races in The New York Times and continuing calls from animal-rights activists that racing clean up the sport. This time, it was New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, with the two co-sponsoring the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act of 2011. A subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing in July 2012 on the issue, and speakers once more came from all across the country to address the panel, and again, after a lot of talk and more talk, nothing came of it.

This time around, Barr and Tonko could not even get a subcommittee hearing, at least so far, and the future of their bill is in doubt.

The question now is: Where should racing go from here?

For those who want to rid the game of cheaters, there is a way to do it that does not involve passing federal legislation or bringing unwanted federal intervention. We’re referring to what has been suggested in this space before: The racetracks can help clean up the sport themselves, if they are so moved (ah, there’s the catch).

See www.drf.com/news/simon-out-competition-testing-would-eliminate-need-federal-bill.

All racetracks need to do is to exercise their rights as private property owners and require all owners and trainers who race horses at their tracks to sign a waiver that says their horses can be tested at any time on any day, on or off the grounds. Out-of-competition testing is one of the best ways to help prevent abuses, and it’s a system used successfully by other sports.

This route would require the tracks to bear the burden of cost, but that could be mitigated by agreements with horsemen on funding, or there could be a stall tax, so all people who are participating in racing would be paying to help keep the game honest.

There’s no easy or inexpensive way to protect bettors, keep the game clean, and ensure the integrity of the sport – if there were, it would already be in place – but major racetracks should take the lead on this issue as a moral and ethical obligation to fans and the sport.