New Anti-Doping Policies by Major Thoroughbred Tracks Just a First Step

Churchill Downs and other major horse industry operations take important step, but it’s no substitute for the comprehensive reform of the Horseracing Integrity Act.

The horse racing industry is showing flashes that it may be serious about weaning itself off of drugs. But key players within the industry continue to resist even modest anti-doping rules within an industry that relies on mainstream Americans to watch and gamble on the competitors. As such, these obstinate actors within the industry are putting the entire sport of horse racing at risk.

Last week, the companies and regulators who organize and oversee the best-known races and racing venues – Churchill Downs and Keeneland in Kentucky (which control the Kentucky Derby and other key races at tracks in Louisville and Lexington), the New York Racing Association (which oversees several tracks, including the host the Belmont Stakes), and the Stronach Group (which owns tracks in California, Florida, and Maryland, which is the staging ground for the Preakness) – said they’d phase in a ban on race-day use of furosemide (a performance enhancer best known as Lasix) for two-year-old horses starting in the coming years.

While the announcement is welcome and a meaningful first step, it falls short of comprehensive reform. The race-day medication ban should include all performance enhancers and other drugs that juice horses or allow injured horses to get on the track, and it should not be restricted just to the young horses preparing for and participating in the Triple Crown races. There should be no doping of competing horses of any age.

A publicly traded company, Churchill Downs, has still not endorsed the Horseracing Integrity Act, H.R. 1754, federal legislation to put the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in charge of a program to enforce a ban on race-day medicating of competing horses. It is authored by two of the industry’s staunchest defenders in Congress, Reps. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., and Andy Barr, R-Ky., who represent two of the largest and best-known breeding and racing districts in the U.S. Their involvement is a marker that key players within the industry are on board with the idea of reform.

Last week’s announcement that focused on Lasix had two triggers: 1) a spate of deaths (now 28 and counting) since Christmas at Santa Anita Park in California, and 2) a growing movement in Congress to adopt the Horseracing Integrity Act.

Make no mistake, this is an inflection moment for horse racing, a sport in slow decline for decades in American culture. The enterprise is at risk of being stigmatized permanently in the minds of so many Americans who are recognizing that the industry is not putting the welfare of the horses first. Key industry leaders, led by The Jockey Club – the breed registry for the thoroughbred industry – are pushing for real change, in the form of the Horseracing Integrity Act.  But other notable voices, including the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association – which includes many trainers in the industry – are pushing back because they are still addicted to drugging of horses.

These players claim that doping is acceptable – much like trainers in the Tennessee Walking horse industry are addicted to harming their horses to get them to exaggerate their gait at key shows.

The apologists for doping and injuring horses only need look at what’s left of the American greyhound racing industry for inspiration. The greyhound industry fought reforms for years, and six months ago, voters in Florida – the hub of that industry – took matters into their own hands.  By a vote of 69 to 31 percent, they adopted a constitutional amendment to phase out all greyhound racing in the state by the end of 2020. Florida had been home to 12 of the 18 tracks in the U.S., so with a single ballot measure, greyhound racing shrunk by two thirds overnight.  Now, that industry – going from 60 tracks thirty years ago to just six by the end of next year – is so small that its unlikely to be able to hold on to what little remains of it. The script has been written, and only the timeline is in doubt.

If the horse racing industry continues to fight reform, or adopts only half-baked measures, it will face its reform moment too.

Reform movements to help animals feed off two factors: 1) crises that highlight acute problems for animals, and 2) the presence of extreme and indefensible practices that marginalize the industry on animal welfare. Both factors are present in today’s horse racing industry.

The rash of horse deaths at Santa Anita is just the latest crisis and other clusters of horse deaths and high-profile breakdowns are certain to follow. American race tracks are turning into crash sites because of indefensible oversight by the industry and by regulators. Only serious and multi-dimensional reforms can mitigate the problems in the sport.

There’s just no rational argument for defending in-competition doping of athletes. The American public understands that regulators forbid cyclists, baseball players, and other athletes from using drugs to enhance performance. They don’t understand, for good reason, why such rules aren’t observed in racing. The case is cemented when one understands that other racing jurisdictions throughout the world, including those in Europe and Australia, ban doping of horses.

Doping apologists are like a horse running out of gas in the stretch run. They can hear the thundering hooves behind them. Their opponents are gaining ground. Soon it will be too late and they’ll be “out of the money.”

While the corporate policies against doping are important steps, the industry has had decades to reform itself.  Congress alone has the power to change the rules of the racing and return a measure of fairness and decency to an industry corrupted by drugs. It must seize the moment.

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