Dangerous Race Day for Horses at the Opening of the 145th Kentucky Derby

Tomorrow marks the running of the 145th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, and the weather is calling for rain and storms at the track that’s been deemed one of the deadliest for horses. There’s been a black cloud over the horse racing industry this year amidst the crisis that began with 23 deaths at Santa Anita Racetrack in California, where the Santa Anita Derby was held last month.

The overwhelming number of negative articles in every major media outlet in the country on the Santa Anita deaths this year have expressed the voices of animal protection advocates, horse racing industry leaders, and the betting public calling for reform. And while many times it takes a crisis to bring federal legislation to passage, it shouldn’t have come to this point.

Hailing from two of the most important Thoroughbred breeding districts in the country, U.S. Reps. Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Andy Barr (R-KY) are again making a push to pass the Horseracing Integrity Act, H.R. 1754,  – a bill they’ve been pushing for the past four years – which, if enacted, would take a tangible stride toward protecting American racehorses through the establishment of a national, uniform standard for drugs and medication in horse racing. It would also grant drug rulemaking, testing, and enforcement oversight to a private, non-profit, self-regulatory independent organization overseen by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) – the governing body that administers the Olympic anti-doping program.

This landmark legislation is supported by a broad base of industry players, which includes members of the Coalition for Horseracing Integrity, such as The Jockey Club, The Preakness, The Belmont, The Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland, Animal Wellness Action, and the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance along with other numerous racetracks and animal protection agencies. Today horse racing operates under an outdated, state-based, balkanized patchwork of medication rules that creates confusion and risk for owners and trainers and contains inconsistencies in enforcement. The Horseracing Integrity Act would greatly improve regulatory standards, ban the use of all medications on race day, and level the playing field for everyone invested in horse racing — our horses, jockeys, trainers, owners and fans alike.

While many professional sports have taken crucial steps to rid their games of illegal doping, the racing industry continues to lag behind — not because of a lack of leadership, but because too many players are simply satisfied with the status quo, which has led to a multitude of equine deaths each year.

Horse racing is a big American sport, employing 400,000 in this country, and surveys have shown that medication regulation is a top priority for the industry. In 2015, a survey by Penn Schoen Berland showed that 90 percent of U.S. adults and 98 percent of sports bettors supported uniform medication rules across all racing states. Another survey that year found 83 percent of members of the Horseplayers Association of North America believe they should lend support to the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity in its quest to reform drug use and enforcement in horse racing.

This isn’t the first time Congress has taken a look into horse racing. In fact, in 2008, after Eight Belles was euthanized on the track at Churchill Downs following her second-place finish in The Kentucky Derby, a House committee convened a series of hearings, wherein the industry promised to unite and modernize its regulations. Today, very few states are compliant with the minimum standards the industry has set for itself. And with the upcoming Triple Crown season only two months away, when millions of casual sports fans will follow horseracing, the need for improved standards is greater than ever.

The inability of the industry to act to better protect its equine and human athletes, as well as the interests of fans, underscores the need for the Horseracing Integrity Act to pass during the 116th Congress and be signed into law. The legislation will benefit horses and the industry alike.

Rep. Barr’s hometown of Lexington – just a stone’s throw from the Derby – is widely known as the Horse Capitol of the World, and one of the U.S. House districts most affected by the Horseracing Integrity Act, along with Saratoga Springs — a beautiful enclave in upstate New York represented by Rep. Tonko. They’ve garnered 70 cosponsorships from their colleagues in the U.S. House from a variety of districts effected by the bill and continue to build steam on Capitol Hill.

But we need your help to get the bill over the finish line before racing season ends – and the abuse in horseracing is forgotten until the next year – by contacting your Members of the House here, and asking them to cosponsor H.R. 1754 to help bring real and meaningful reform. In a sport with no national commissioner, Congress must take action by passing this life-saving and industry-saving legislation.

Marty Irby is the executive director at Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C., an 8-time world champion equestrian rider, and past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association.

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