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Stop doping horses [Commentary]

With the Preakness coming up here in Maryland, it's time things changed for the better in America's horse racing industry, which long ago drifted far from the values of sport.

It is increasingly difficult for honest horse owners to succeed and for honest betters to get a fair shake as unscrupulous trainers continue to jeopardize the welfare of both horse and jockey for the sake of winning in the absence of consistent regulations and serious enforcement.

The only sure bet is that horses each week are made to pay a shocking toll in deaths and injuries.

Unlike most sports with national standing, there is no single governing body that oversees horse racing. Instead, various state commissions spottily enforce a maze of different rules. The sport doesn't answer to accepted values of fair play. Imagine if the NFL had different rules in each of the 32 professional football stadiums, or the NHL in 30 different hockey arenas. It would be chaos with no national standards or consistency.

What would be cheating in any other sport is commonplace in horse racing. Horses are regularly injected with drugs for non-therapeutic purposes on race day to enable the injured or disadvantaged animals to race. Often drugged up with painkillers and performance-enhancing substances, race horses are pushed beyond their limits, leading to regular break downs with potentially severe or fatal consequences for horses and their jockeys. If trainers are penalized under existing, if haphazard, rules in one jurisdiction, they are free to move on to another and another still.

Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, and Rep. Joe Pitts, a Pennsylvania Republican, have introduced the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (S. 973/H.R. 2012), which would take the vital first steps needed to put things right by tackling the use — and abuse — of drugs on racing horses. Their legislation would designate the non-governmental U.S. Anti-Doping Agency as the independent authority to establish and enforce rules regarding drugs in horse racing. This is the same agency that works with the U.S. Olympic team and various sports' leagues to ensure clean competition.

The agency would create uniform rules on the use of drugs, prohibiting race-day medication of horses with performance-enhancing drugs. Any racetrack that wanted to offer "simulcast" wagering would be required to participate. The bill includes stiff penalties for cheating, suspensions for rule violations and a lifetime ban for the most severe types of doping.

In the short interval between the Kentucky Derby on May 3 and the conclusion of the Triple Crown at Belmont in early June, it is estimated that 120 horses are doomed to die on racetracks around the country. That's the number we can extrapolate from a two-year New York Times investigation, which found that 24 horses perished, on average, each week as a result of racing. One horse, named Canadian Winner, was euthanized after breaking down on the track at Churchill Downs little more than an hour after the Derby this month.

Many of these deaths were avoidable. Injured horses should not be doped against pain and then raced. Young horses should not be doped with the short-term hope of getting more speed out of them.

You don't have to dig far to read harrowing accounts of horses injected again and again with painkillers prior to racing and then collapsing right on the track. A study at one California track found that on average each horse received 6.5 drug injections after being entered in a race. This is shameful. Horses deserve at least basic anti-doping protections, and those people who wager on horses are owed an honest contest unclouded by drugs.

There's no reason for Congress to dally. No ideology divides us when it comes to the simple proposition that athletes should not be doped, certainly not on the day of competition. With Triple Crown season upon us, we are calling on Congress to pass the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act to protect the sport's athletes — both equine and human — and begin to restore integrity and confidence in an industry whose reputation has been badly sullied.

Keith Dane is vice president of equine protection for The Humane Society of the United States. Twitter: @KeithDane01.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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