Whitfield asks for update on racing safety

Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, has joined Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., in calling for an update on the horse racing industry's progress in addressing safety and medication concerns raised at a congressional hearing two years ago.

In letters to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, The Jockey Club and the Association of Racing Commissioners International released on Friday, Whitfield and Udall asked nine questions related to animal welfare, jockey safety and the sport's integrity, including whether current state regulation is sufficient. Responses are due by May 14.

"We welcome the scrutiny of the Senate and House Committees and sincerely appreciate their interest in improving the sport of Thoroughbred racing," said the NTRA's president and CEO, Alex Waldrop, in a statement. "We look forward to providing a comprehensive update to Congress and answering any questions it has on the safety and integrity fronts."

Among the lawmakers' queries: "Since Congress last examined concerns with breeding practices and the use of performance-enhancing drugs and race-day medication, what has your organization — and the horse racing industry as a whole — done to improve the safety and welfare of racehorses and their jockeys?"

Whitfield is the ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection. Udall, of New Mexico, home of 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird, is on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The two committees have jurisdiction over the Interstate Horseracing Act, which legalizes the sport's ability to take bets across state lines on races "simulcast" from another location.

"Given the benefits of the IHA, we as members of these committees expect the horse racing industry to not only protect the safety and welfare of its animals and jockeys, but also the integrity of the sport," the letters say.

In the letters, the lawmakers refer to a "leading trainer" who earlier this year was fined $25,000 and suspended for 10 days for a drug violation, and suspended for 45 days in 2004 for a drug violation.

"In spite of this dubious track record, this trainer may enter up to four horses in the upcoming Kentucky Derby," the lawmakers wrote. "This is just one of many examples of trainers who seemingly suffer minimal consequences for repeated medications violations. Such high-profile examples lead one to question whether the horse racing industry is capable or willing to rid itself of performance enhancing drugs and illegal race-day medications."

The trainer referred to in the letter isn't named, but Todd Pletcher, who had four entries in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, was fined $25,000 in January by the California Horse Racing Board for a positive test for the anesthetic procaine by the horse Wait a While after a third-place finish in the 2008 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita.

Pletcher, who won the Derby with Super Saver, declined Monday to comment on the letter, which he said he hasn't seen.

Whitfield's office said the congressman wants a progress report on the current state of reforms proposed in part in response to the 2008 hearing on the deaths of Eight Belles and Derby winner Barbaro.

In the wake of those deaths, the industry formed the Thoroughbred Safety Committee, which made several recommendations, among them the banning of anabolic steroids and the elimination of toe-grabs on front horseshoes.

Among the requests, the lawmakers asked which jurisdictions and tracks have adopted the reforms recommended by the Thoroughbred Safety Committee; how many racing jurisdictions are participating in the database of breakdowns and jockey injuries; how many Thoroughbred starters were injured in 2009; and what percentage were younger than 24 months.

Last year, the NTRA formed its Safety Alliance to certify that racetracks meet certain safety and security standards, but the program is voluntary.