In advance of the Kentucky Derby, several prominent racetracks announced the formation of a coalition to eliminate Lasix as a race-day medication for 2-year-old and stakes races. Additionally, Churchill Downs announced a set of safety protocols and procedures, including medication reform, limits on crop use, an increased investment into equine medical facilities, and an initial set of limited medication reforms, which are all laudable and will move safety forward.
The Jockey Club commends those associations on their commitment to the health and safety of racehorses, and the integrity of the sport on the threshold of another Triple Crown season. But for reform to be truly effective, it would have to be adopted across the 38 separate state and regional regulatory bodies that govern horse racing. This fragmented system means we don’t have national standards that are in line with international standards, which are designed to better protect horses. It means that initiatives, such as those announced last week, are faced with a long and tortuous path that may take years to implement.
Health problems and spikes in horse fatalities are the result of multiple factors in which there are many unknowns. The lack of transparency into treatment records and medical histories of Thoroughbreds are largely due to a fragmented regulatory system that does not emphasize transparency let alone uniformity. As a result, regulators cannot effectively manage the many issues involved in equine health and safety.
Relying upon a system of individual, state-based regulations and rules denies the industry dynamic and effective change. And placing another voluntary layer of oversight with quasi-regulatory powers on top of an already broken system will not yield the results we desire: better rules, strictly enforced and uniformly implemented on a national basis.
The Rosetta stone for deciphering and solving the problem of an injury and death rate that is 2.5 to 5 times greater than the rest of the world is full medical transparency into the horse combined with a comprehensive system of out-of-competition testing to ensure records are truthful. That means full data on treatments, injuries, and drugs given to our equine athletes. Today, we can’t fully see what is going on with a horse because of differing state and track practices, antiquated procedures, and purposeful deceit about what drugs are given to horses at what times.
The Lasix proposal is laudable, but leaves 87 percent of Thoroughbred starts untouched. The paramount issue upon which the industry should be focused is the role of drug use and transparency into the health of horses. When drugs are improperly used or potentially overadministered to mask symptoms, they can directly lead to horse injuries and deaths. Horses communicate something is wrong by reacting to a symptom. If that symptom is masked, the results can be devastating.
Everyone knows that there are cheaters and abusers in horse racing and that drugs play a huge role. There is little out-of-competition testing, so we just don’t know what substances horses are being given. Some drugs are performance-enhancers that are cloaked as therapeutic medications and others are powerful pain-suppressing medications that lead to horse injuries.
The solution to improving the health of horses and reducing fatalities and injuries is across all racing jurisdictions and cannot be left to a fragmented, ineffective regulatory system. To achieve comprehensive reform, we need the passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act by Congress.
This bill would create a private, independent horse racing anti-doping authority responsible for developing and administering a strict nationwide anti-doping and medication control program under the oversight of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. This agency is the benchmark for drug testing and enforcement of human athletes, including the nation’s Olympians. Horse racing would operate under one set of anti-doping and medication rules across the country, a system that the racing industry has never been able to achieve on its own.
It’s encouraging to see some factions of the racing industry recognize the need for change, for the sake of the sport and the sake of the horse. Let’s build on that and come together to support the Horseracing Integrity Act.
Jim Gagliano is COO of The Jockey Club, the breed registry for Thoroughbreds in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico.