Bill would give federal anti-doping agency authority over horse racing

New York Times News ServiceMay 1, 2013 

Two lawmakers who contend that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is the most effective agency to regulate horse racing plan to introduce a bill in Congress to give it the authority to enforce anti-doping standards and to kick out violators.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was written by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., and they plan to introduce it when Congress returns to session next week. The act would give the anti-doping agency, known as USADA, the authority to develop rules for permitted and prohibited substances, and it also would create testing and stiffer penalty programs for horse racing nationally, replacing the patchwork state-by-state system currently in place.

USADA, a non-governmental organization, is the official anti-doping agency for the U.S. Olympics team and has worked with Major League Baseball and other professional leagues to eliminate performance-enhancing drugs. Its reputation as a vigilant watchdog was enhanced most recently when it was widely credited for its relentless pursuit of cyclist Lance Armstrong, who this year admitted that he had systematically used drugs during his racing career.

"We look forward to helping the industry clean itself up," said Travis Tygart, USADA's chief executive. "We fully support, and have shown, that the independent model is the only truly effective way to regulate a sport."

The bill will be introduced after a year in which racing has publicly wrestled with a drug culture that its officials concede is diminishing the sport.

A New York Times investigation identified the nation's most dangerous racetracks, showed how a pervasive drug culture put horses and riders at risk and found that 24 horses a week die at U.S. tracks, a rate greater than in countries where drug use is severely restricted.

"The chronic abuse of race horses with painkillers and other drugs is dangerous and just plain wrong," Udall said. "Racing groups have promised drug reform for decades, but this bill would bring in real standards and enforcement from an organization with a proven record for cleaning up sports."

Unlike previous bills, which were not enacted, the new one would enable USADA to act as the anti-doping body without amending the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 or involve any federal agency or regulation, increasing hopes for its passage. It would be financed by the industry — racetracks, horsemen groups, breeders and owners — through either a percentage of the betting handle or a series of fees.

The horse racing industry sustains about 380,000 jobs nationwide, according to Udall's office. Last year, more than $10.8 billion was wagered on U.S. horse racing — including $133 million on the Kentucky Derby — and more than 90 percent of it came through off-track or computer wagering across state lines.

If states and their industry stakeholders decline to adopt and adhere to USADA's rules and penalties under the proposed bill, they would not be allowed to participate in interstate wagering.

Horse racing officials have taken significant steps to clean up their sport. Eight states recently agreed to operate their racetracks under one set of rules that severely restrict the administration of medication.

The states across the mid-Atlantic region, including New York, winnowed what had long been an unruly list of medications to only 24 that will be allowed to treat illness and injuries in racehorses. Those drugs will be subject to strict limitations, and the laboratories conducting drug tests must be accredited under standards created by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, which conducts medication and drug-testing research for the industry.

But Udall and Pitts said there needed to be more sweeping and severe rules in place to restore public confidence in horse racing.

"Last year, I chaired a hearing that took a deep look into the problems of both legal and illegal drugs in horse racing," Pitts said. "We heard testimony about how abuse of drugs is killing horses and imperiling riders. Before more people and animals are hurt, we need to put a responsible national authority in charge of cleaning up racing. This is a sensible, bipartisan measure to restore trust in racing and protect lives."

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