Former Jockey Club chief says racing has reached 'critical state' over drug policies

Some say it's time for horse racing to have a national body overseeing a uniform anti-doping program.

The public's dwindling confidence in American horse racing's medication policies "has reached a critical state" bordering on an industry "crisis," former Maryland Jockey Club chief executive Joseph A. De Francis told members of Congress Thursday.

Speaking before the Congressional Horse Caucus, De Francis said that the industry has failed "to address on a national level" the issue of abuse and misuse of racehorse medications.

"The erosion of public confidence has reached a critical state and I truly believe that we are just one catastrophic breakdown in a Triple Crown race away from destroying public confidence to the point where it would be decades before the sport would recover – if it ever would," De Francis said. "From a hard-nosed purely dollars and cents perspective it is an axiomatic principle of business to maintain the confidence of the public – and especially your core customer base – in the fundamental integrity of the product that you're offering to customers.

"In this regard please have no doubt that the horse racing industry is currently in a state of crisis."

The hearing at the U.S. Capitol examined legislation requiring that a uniform anti-doping program be developed and enforced by an independent authority.

Advocates of the bill say the sport, which is overseen by several dozen state commissions with varying rules, needs more uniformity to curb equine medication abuses. Opponents argue that such an approach would usurp states' rights and create an unneeded new layer of bureaucracy.

Sal Sinatra, who took over as vice president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club in December 2014, declined comment Thursday on the bill.

The Jockey Club — the umbrella organization for Pimlico and Laurel Park — holds the Preakness, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown, which begins each spring with the Kentucky Derby.

The De Francis siblings, including Joseph, inherited the tracks when their father, Frank J. De Francis, died in 1989. The De Francises and a group of minority owners sold controlling interest of the tracks to Canada-based Magna in 2002, and Joseph De Francis remained with the Jockey Club until 2007.

He now runs a Columbia-based partnership overseeing family business interests.

During his testimony, De Francis noted that it has been 10 years since champion racehorse Barbaro shattered his leg at the Preakness Stakes.

"The only thing that saved the horse racing industry from being absolutely eviscerated by an absolute tsunami of public outrage and bad publicity over the tragic injury to Barbaro was the fact his owners — Roy and Gretchen Jackson — and his trainer, Michael Matz, were people of the very highest integrity who were absolutely beyond reproach," De Francis said. "If in the future, God forbid, we were to suffer a tragic breakdown in a Triple Crown race that could be traced to some form of medication abuse or misuse, it would result in turning away generations of fans that in my opinion will never return to the sport, certainly in my lifetime," he said.

The bill's chief sponsors — Reps. Andy Barr, R-Ky., and Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. —- have been trying to gather momentum for the measure, which lists 20 co-sponsors.

"We clearly see that the status quo is not working," Barr said at the hearing. "We need to preserve the industry and we need to enhance it."

Also testifying on behalf of the bill was Bobby Flay, the chef and restaurateur who is also a horse breeder and owner.

"We need quality racing, we need no drugs and we need to toss those people who don't want to play by the rules out of the game," Flay told the panel.

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