09/18/2008 11:00PM

Slaughter bill needs backing

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The last time anyone bothered to check, Thoroughbred racing still has an image problem. Ask around. Just because the remains of Eight Belles have been laid to rest and Big Brown's steroids have cleared his system does not mean that the public won't turn on the sport in a heartbeat.

That is why, sad to say, it was so unnecessary for the National Thoroughbred Racing Associations to make such a big deal of withholding support for a piece of legislation currently struggling to make it to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, a bill that would effectively criminalize interstate commerce in the slaughter of horses.

Thoroughbreds are no longer slaughtered commercially for meat in the United States. Local laws closed down the last of the slaughterhouses in 2007. Thoroughbreds are, however, still sold to people who pack them into cramped trailers and subject them to ungodly conditions while driving them through accommodating states to Canada or Mexico, where the abattoirs flourish within convenient range of the border.

For most of the last decade, organizations representing a variety of breeding and racing interests have parked their differences and joined hands in the support of federal legislation intended to remove slaughter as a component of the Thoroughbred economy. A watershed moment came at the 2004 Breeders' Cup at Lone Star Park, where then NTRA commissioner D.G. Van Clief Jr. stood beneath a banner reading "Remember Ferdinand" - the Derby winner slaughtered in Japan - and pledged the organization's support in the fight to ban horse slaughter.

How'd that work out? Well, HR 857, the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, was introduced in February 2003 and had 228 co-sponsors. It died in a House committee. Its successor, HR 503, passed the House in August 2006 by a wide, bipartisan margin, then died in a Senate committee.

For the most part, the legislative ball has been carried by representatives of the animal-welfare lobby. Thwarted by pro-slaughter interests in congressional agriculture committees, they took a different tack. The bill before the Judiciary Committee would amend a chapter of Title 18, the enforcement codes of the U.S. legal system. There is bipartisan support, with three committee Republicans set to join the Democratic majority.

Now comes a letter from NTRA president and CEO Alex Waldrop to the Judiciary Committee, outlining "concerns" and "unintended consequences" regarding HR 6598. Such a communication from the ostensible mouthpiece of the sport significantly reduces the chances that the 110th Congress would be the one to drive a lethal stake into the domestic horse slaughter trade.

"On this new bill, we weren't consulted," Waldrop said this week from his Lexington office. "It was put on us as a last-ditch effort to get something through this Congress. Essentially, it's an unfunded mandate, unlike the prior bill that had significant dollars in there for retirement and retraining of horses, and would help to address the problem of unwanted horses."

A careful reading of HR 857 indicates that Waldrop is stretching a point. According to that former bill, any support for animal-rescue facilities helping with horses seized on the way to slaughter would require grants linked to the appropriation process, a slow and painful way to inject anything resembling "significant dollars." A rescue organization also might end up with a cut of any fines or penalties (no amounts stipulated), or even a share of any forfeited property. But that is far from an effective way to fund a mandate.

"It also puts enforcement in the hands of the wrong group," Waldrop added. "The attorney general is not the place to be dealing with animal-control issues. Clearly, the Department of Agriculture is the right place."

If it was that clear, why has legislation languished in agricultural committees for the past five years?

"Clearly, they are looking for excuses," said Christopher Heyde, deputy legislative director of the Animal Welfare Institute. "Any federal agency given a responsibility to enforce a law can ask any other federal/state agency or nonprofit for help. The DOJ does have the resources already by law to help with animals and they easily work with local and national animal-protection groups who know how to care for animals.

"On top of that, we have to remember any animals they confiscate would be in relation to a specific case," Heyde added. "It would be a person hauling a truckload of horses to slaughter, not 100,000 horses as the slaughter folks claim. At the most, it would be 40-50 horses in a truck. We place horses like that all of the time."

The Waldrop position continues to conflate the very distinct issues of Thoroughbred retirement and Thoroughbred slaughter, as if they went hand in glove. They don't - other than the idea that slaughter should not be a legal option - and their linkage in legislation does nothing to serve either cause.

Since the objections of the NTRA appear to be without serious substance, it must be a matter of pride. The NTRA was all over HB 857, and it went nowhere. Now others have stepped up and are on the brink of getting something accomplished.

"I can assure you we're not stopping any of these bills," Waldrop said. "Our association is simply taking no position on this bill at this time."

Sorry, but when it comes to something like the slaughter of racehorses, no position is a position. And it's the wrong one.