Whitfield files federal bill to ban raceday drugs in horses

Calling drug use rampant in racing, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, filed legislation Wednesday in Washington to ban the use of all medication in horses on race day.

The bill was also filed in the Senate by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., indicating bipartisan support for establishing national standards for the sport of horse racing.

Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, co-sponsored the bill.

"This weekend, the very best of horse racing will be on display at the Kentucky Derby. Yet, for too long, the safety of jockeys and equine athletes has been neglected for the pursuit of racing profits," Whitfield said. "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, meaningful action and oversight has yet to come forth. This legislation will bring much-needed reforms to an industry that supports thousands of jobs and is enjoyed by spectators nationwide."

James L. Gagliano, president and chief operating officer of The Jockey Club, declined to comment on the bill but said his organization supports a medication ban.

"The Jockey Club does share the belief that performance-enhancing medication has no place in Thoroughbred racing," Gagliano said. "The Jockey Club stands convinced that the elimination of race-day medication is essential to achieving optimal stewardship of the horse, the sport, the public perception and confidence, and the business of Thoroughbred racing."

Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said the problem has been overstated.

"We strongly disagree with the overall characterization of our sport by the authors of the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act. Horseracing continues to outpace other sports in its drug and medication policies. The winner of every race is subject to drug testing at every track, every day in the United States. Non-winning horses are also subject to random drug testing. The fact is that less than one half of one percent of the more than 100,000 tests resulted in a positive for illegal drugs or overages of therapeutic medications in 2010. Our industry is committed to catching and punishing cheaters."

Horse racing is almost exclusively regulated by individual states; Whitfield's bill would add new provisions to the 1978 Interstate Horse racing Act, which governs simulcasting, giving the federal government leverage.

Wagering on horse racing, which provides the purses, has been in serious decline in the last six years, and off-track betting now accounts for almost 90 percent of the total wagered in the United States. Therefore, the bill puts the onus for enforcement on the tracks rather than state regulators.

Tracks that provide simulcasting or Internet wagering would have to ban performance-enhancing drugs and test all winners plus at least one additional horse from each race.

The bill outlaws use of any performance-enhancing drug, including anti-bleeder medications such as Lasix (known as Salix for veterinary use), which is legal in the United States but not elsewhere in the world. Generically called furosemide, the drug is also a potent diuretic, and there has been disagreement over whether it affects racing performance. Almost all horses that race in the United States get a shot of furosemide four hours before the race.

Some states also allow the use of anti-inflammatory medications.

Doping violations would merit stiff fines and suspensions; after three occurrences, violators would be permanently banned. Horses would be barred from competition, as well, Whitfield said.

The bill comes three years after Whitfield held a congressional hearing in the wake of the on-track death of 2008 Kentucky Derby second-place finisher Eight Belles. At that hearing, the late Jess Jackson, prominent owner and breeder, called for national oversight.

That hearing added weight to the call to ban steroids after it was revealed Derby winner Big Brown ran legally on the medication. Industry groups such as the Breeders' Cup, The Jockey Club and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association immediately called for action, and states subsequently banned steroids.

Last month, major racing-industry groups announced a summit on the issue will be held this summer after the Association of Racing Commissioners' International called for a five-year phasing in of a medication ban. The location and time have not yet been announced.