Politics & Government

GOP’s Andy Barr and Democrats back congressional review of Santa Anita horse deaths

Republicans and Democrats now agree — there needs to be a congressional review into a rash of horse racing deaths at a California race track.

Rep. Andy Barr, a Kentucky Republican who co-chairs the Congressional Horse Caucus, will tour the Santa Anita track over the weekend.

He agrees with Rep. Judy Chu, D-California, who represents the Santa Anita Park, that Congress needs to look into the deaths of 23 horses at the southern California track since Dec. 26. The congressional review would likely be conducted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Barr, who will be in California for a fundraiser at the Peninsula Beverly Hills this weekend is adding the track trip, worried about the fatalities and the fallout for the horse racing industry, an integral part of Kentucky’s economy. The Kentucky Derby, the nation’s first major showcase for 3-year-old horses and the first leg of racing’s Triple Crown, will be run May 4.

Barr said he plans to meet over the weekend with officials of the Stronach Group, which owns the track north of Los Angeles, as well as with trainer Bob Baffert and California horse owners and breeders.

“We’re going to do some fact finding and learn a little bit more about the perspectives of what happened out there and what they’re doing to take remedial action,” Barr said. “A lot of our constituents in Kentucky race their horses out there and there are a lot of ties.”

Barr stopped short of joining Chu and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who have called for the suspension of horse racing at the park until investigators determine the cause of the deaths. Barr spokeswoman Jodi Whitaker said he would leave that decision to the California Horse Racing Board.

The track was closed in early March for nearly a month so inspections and renovations of the dirt surface could be made. Track officials have not announced any one cause for what is considered an unusually high number of deaths. The 23rd horse died on Sunday, two days after the track had re-opened.

The deaths come as Barr and Rep. Paul Tonko, D-New York, have re-introduced legislation they say would improve safety and public confidence at race tracks.

It would create a federal authority for horse racing and uniform standards for drug use, replacing what Barr has called “inconsistent rules” across 38 states. The measure, the Horse Racing Integrity Act, would also prohibit trainers from administering drugs on race days.

“This can be a dangerous sport and we want the athletes to be safe,” said Tonko, who plans to speak with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California about the bill.

The legislation drew 131 co-sponsors in the last Congress and Barr said he expects more support this time. He said he’d talked with Chu, who backed the legislation in the past and that she told him she plans to champion the bill.

“We have as much momentum now as we ever have,” Barr said of the bill.

He argued that although the cause of the deaths is not yet known, the legislation would “improve the safety and the integrity of the sport.

“Anything we can do to make the sport safer and eliminate doping, we need to do that, because doping is unsafe for the equine athlete and the human athlete,” Barr said. “The industry obviously has a challenge right now and we want the perception of the sport and the reality of the sport to be safe and we want to eliminate any factors that could contribute to more deaths.”

Barr said he’s worried the sport won’t be able to attract a new generation of horse enthusiasts if there is a belief that it’s an “unsafe or inhumane endeavor.”

The bill faces staunch opposition from two major horsemen’s groups and the Association of Racing Commissioners International. The association’s president, Ed Martin, said the legislation would “do nothing to protect horses.”

He argued it would instead repeal a “long standing equine welfare program” that he said would permits race day medication “proven to be helpful to the health of the horse.”

None of Barr’s fellow members of the Kentucky delegation backed the legislation and it’s not clear they will support the new version.

Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, said he’d take a second look at the legislation, but was troubled that it has had the backing of the Humane Society of the United States, which he says has sought to impose restrictions on animal agriculture, including advocating for cageless chickens.

“My first thought is ‘I don’t want to see the Humane Society start getting wins in animal agriculture,” said Comer, a former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner.

Advocates of the legislation have suggested that many members of the delegation are waiting for word from Churchill Downs, which has not backed the bill. The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park, north of Miami, and other tracks, has supported the legislation. Churchill Downs stopped short of ruling it out.

“We remain supportive of any improvements for horse racing that have been thoroughly studied and have broad support through collaboration with other industry leaders,” said the race track’s president Kevin Flanery.

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.