When American Pharoah became the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown, many hoped Thoroughbred racing would get the jump-start it needs.
The positive press lasted about a week. Then the mainstream media's general negativity about the American racing industry resumed, most notably concerning drug usage on racehorses, or simply by ignoring the sport.
I want to thank the Herald-Leader editorial board for its enlightened support of the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act and congressmen Andy Barr, R-Ky., and Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., chairmen of the Congressional Horse Caucus, who introduced it July 16.
The bill would establish an independent, non-governmental anti-doping authority responsible for implementing a national uniform medication program with input from the Thoroughbred industry.
The legislation would encourage fair competition and a level playing field across state lines, help assure full disclosure to purchasers of breeding stock and the wagering public, and help provide for the safety and welfare of horses and jockeys. The ultimate objective: Enhance the popularity and international competitiveness of Thoroughbred breeding and racing in America. The industry contributes $25 billion to the U.S. economy annually and generates 380,000 jobs, according to a 2005 American Horse Council study, but it has experienced a slide in recent years in attendance, betting handle, foal crop and international investment.
The legislation would establish the first federal regulation of horse racing since the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978. As one of that law's writers, I am proud that it has produced billions of dollars for horse owners and trainers, racetrack owners and other participants by establishing the right for tracks to simulcast, and the public to wager on, races across state lines. I was executive director of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association at the time and held out for owners and trainers to have a veto so that racetracks and off-track betting agencies could not enter into agreements without the consent of local horsemen. The act was amended in 2000 to permit interstate telephone and Internet betting. Currently, 90 percent of wagering on U.S. races comes from simulcasting and off-track betting.
Existing consents in the simulcasting law would remain intact in the Barr-Tonko bill, except that states that fail to support a uniform system of drug regulation could lose their rights to simulcast across state lines. That's the "stick" — and the "sticking point."
The amounts of legal drugs that can appear in a horse's system on the day of racing can vary from one state to another. The Thoroughbred Racing Integrity Act puts the United States Anti-Doping Agency in charge of bringing uniformity to the industry. The agency regulates illegal drug use and blood doping by American athletes in the Olympics, Paralympics, Pan American Games and Tour de France.
The agency would create the Thoroughbred Horseracing Anti-Doping Authority, financed by the industry at no cost to taxpayers. Ideally, laboratory standards would meet the highest levels, and penalties to cheaters would be far more severe than under current state rules.
The bill also gives the authority the power to deal with the controversial drug known as Lasix or Salix, given legally to horses on race days to prevent internal respiratory bleeding. Research has shown the drug can enhance a horse's performance, principally through weight loss — a major reason over 90 percent of U.S. Thoroughbreds race with it in their systems.
Arthur B. Hancock III, owner of Stone Farm in Bourbon County, has been an outspoken advocate of federal legislation to "clean up our sport" for 35 years. In 2012, Arthur, his wife, Staci, and other owners and breeders formed the Water Hay Oats Alliance, now with 1,200 members who advocate that horses should race free of any substances other than water, hay and oats.
In June, a small group of WHOA members met with Barr at Stone Farm to discuss the legislation. Arthur Hancock IV, who is in line to someday run his father's beautiful farm, told the congressman: "If the industry doesn't change its position and outlaw race-day medication, I've told my dad to sell the horses and let's raise cattle." (In the past decade, an alarmingly large percentage of Kentucky Thoroughbred breeders have come to a similar conclusion, based on the 40 percent decline in foal production cited by The Jockey Club since 2005.)
Despite the diverse coalition supporting the Barr-Tonko bill, horse racing remains a divided industry, particularly on the subject of Lasix. Many warn of the consequences should it be banned, saying that without the medication, annual starts per horse (6.22 in 2014) would drop even lower due to increased respiratory problems. In 1960, Thoroughbreds averaged 11.31 starts per annum.
Despite these arguments, as one who has been involved in the industry for more than half a century, I wholeheartedly endorse the efforts of so many to provide more integrity to the wonderful but wounded sport of horse racing. The Barr-Tonko bill is an important step in the right direction.