U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, called late Tuesday for a renewed push for federal legislation on racehorse medication in the wake of an article in Sunday's New York Times that focused on injuries and fatalities in quarter horse and Thoroughbred racing.
Whitfield said he "was disgusted but not surprised" by the findings that thousands of horses of both breeds apparently continue to break down at the track less than four years after the industry promised improvement at a congressional hearing.
"For too long, the safety of jockeys and equine athletes has been neglected for the pursuit of racing profits," Whitfield said in a statement. "The doping of injured horses and forcing them to compete is deplorable and must be stopped. Despite repeated promises from the racing industry to end this practice, voluntary meaningful action and oversight are not going to happen."
Statistics released last week from the Equine Injury Database, set up after the on-track death of Eight Belles just after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, showed that reported fatalities have declined from 804 in 2009 to 758 in 2011, but that the average of deaths per starts has not dropped significantly, and for 3-year-olds, it increased slightly. With more than 2,300 Thoroughbred deaths reported in three years, the industry's voluntary efforts so far appear to have little impact.
Whitfield said that legislation he introduced last year with Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., would "set up national standards, implement fines and put into place a 'three strikes and you're out rule.'" He pledged to continue to work with his House colleagues to push for the bill.
On Monday, Udall again called for the legislation to move forward to stop "an epidemic of animal doping that has led to countless euthanizations of helpless horses and the injury and death of their riders" and to "kick cheaters out of the sport." Much of Sunday's report focused on problems at New Mexico's tracks. Called the Interstate Horse racing Improvement Act of 2011, the Whitfield-Udall bill received a huge vote of support from hundreds of the biggest names in the industry, who signed an "open letter to the industry" in Tuesday's Thoroughbred Daily News.
"Many concerned members of our industry are now behind this effort as it is becoming ever more clear that the industry isn't going to be able to police itself and that federal legislation is the only solution available to solve the drug problem in our industry," the group said in the letter.
But official industry groups have stopped short of that. Alex Waldrop, president and chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, issued a statement Tuesday saying that despite significant efforts to improve safety, "we must do more and move with a greater sense of urgency than has been demonstrated to date. Toward that end, tracks, horsemen, regulators and other participants must consider all options for enacting nationwide reform in a more comprehensive, lasting way."
The NTRA declined to say whether those options included federal legislation.