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Horse interests spend millions in congressional fight to bar race-day medication

Bitterly divided over a bid to bar race-day medication for horses, equine interests on both sides have spent close to $3 million lobbying Congress on federal legislation that would end the practice.

Though the bill to ban medication has more than 100 co-sponsors, it has yet to get a hearing in Congress or land a Senate sponsor. But that hasn’t prevented interests from weighing in: Since a version of the legislation was introduced in July 2015, horse breeders and owners, jockeys, race tracks and the animal welfare giant, the Humane Society of the United States, have spent at least $2.8 million on lobbyists, according to a McClatchy review of disclosure reports filed with the U.S. House and Senate.

The legislation, which would create a federal authority and uniform medicationstandards for horse racing, would replace what its sponsor Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky. says are “inconsistent rules” across 38 racing jurisdictions.

It would also prohibit trainers from administering furosemide, commonly known as Lasix, which prevents bleeding in racehorses and represents the only race-day medication now allowed at most tracks.

Groups supporting the legislation have spent $1.6 million on lobbyists. Those opposing it have spent $400,000. Interests that have not taken a public position on the bill have spent $805,000 on lobbying efforts related to the bill along with other legislation.

Opponents of the legislation argue it’s an unnecessary federal intrusion that would put an economic strain on the industry. They said they began stepping up lobbying efforts after seeing what they consider well-heeled opponents investing heavily in the bill.

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“We feel now that both sides of the story are being told," said Eric Hamelback, chief executive officer of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which retained a lobbying firm last fall. “We’re horsemen, we’re workers, being in D.C. is not our comfort zone, but when it was obvious the minority was coming in force, we felt like we had to do something.”

The association, which represents race horse owners and trainers, and the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, another major national player that represents thoroughbred owners, breeders and trainers, has spent more than $400,000 lobbying against the measure, saying it duplicates already existing oversight.

The use of Lasix has long divided the horse racing community, but Hamelback said trainers view it as an “equine health and welfare” medication that prevents horses from bleeding in the lungs.

“If you don’t want to utilize the medication, then don’t,” Hamelback said. “It should not be taken away simply by the sign of a pen. “

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, a coalition of horse racing interests whose purview includes certifying safety standards at racetracks, has not taken a position on the legislation. The group spent $280,000 in 2016 on “animal welfare issues,” including the 2015 version of the Horse Racing Integrity Act.

Kentucky’s Churchill Downs, which Saturday hosts the first leg of racing's fabled Triple Crown, has not endorsed the legislation and advocates of the legislation say that's kept many Kentucky lawmakers on the sidelines. Among Kentucky members of Congress, only Barr has signed onto the legislation.

But federal records show that since the bill’s introduction, the Louisville race track has spent at least $525,000 on lobbyists, who are registered to lobby lawmakers on the Barr legislation as well as unrelated gaming legislation.

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The legislation to create a nationwide drug testing enforcement program does have the backing of the owners of the next two Triple Crown tracks: Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course, which hosts the Preakness on May 19, and New York's Belmont Park, where the Belmont Stakes will be run June 9.

The Stronach Group, which owns the Maryland Jockey Club, including the Pimlico track, along with the Santa Anita racetrack north of Los Angeles and Gulfstream Park, north of Miami, enthusiastically backs the measure, and has spent at least $600,000 lobbying supporting Barr’s legislation, tax matters and “equine safety issues.”

Other proponents of the legislation, including race tracks in Colorado, New Jersey and New York, the Humane Society, the influential Jockey Club and Lexington's Keeneland Association, are members of the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, which has spent nearly $800,000 on lobbying efforts since the bill’s introduction.

The coalition argues that the use of Lasix can mask illness among horses with severe bleeding problems and that it adversely affects global demand for North American horses. Supporters point to research that shows that although fewer than 5 percent of thoroughbreds bleed extensively, nearly 95 percent are injected on race day.

“Every successful anti-doping effort has used the model that we’re proposing,” said Shawn Smealie, the coalition's executive director and registered lobbyist. “People who oppose this are opposing an effective anti-doping system. They’re advocating for the status quo which is universally agreed to as being ineffective.”

The Humane Society has also spent more than $200,000 outside the coalition, lobbying for the horse racing legislation, as well as more than two dozen other animal welfare bills.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark