WASHINGTON -- Members of the thoroughbred racing community pleaded with a House subcommittee yesterday to take command of the horse racing industry.
The hearing room in the Rayburn Building was standing-room-only as members of Congress held a hearing on "Breeding, Drugs and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Horseracing and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred."
The euthanization of the filly and Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles was the catalyst for the hearing with the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Alan Marzelli, president and chief operating officer of the Jockey Club, said the efforts of his organization and its newly formed Safety Committee are moving toward solving issues of steroid use and horse safety. Also, Alex Waldrop, chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said: "The last thing this industry needs is another layer of bureaucracy. ... The horse racing industry should be allowed to continue its efforts to build a more uniform and cohesive health and safety program for its participants."
But their voices were nearly lost, as testimony mounted against the ability of the industry to regulate itself.
Hancock recalled that the leaders of the industry had assembled 28 years ago and been told by then-Maryland Sen. Charles Mathias "to clean up our act," only to arrive here yesterday and find that "it has only gotten worse."
"We are not persuaded by Mr. Waldrop," said Rep. Edward Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican, who asked Marzelli about what power he had to get things done.
"What can you do?" Whitfield asked.
Marzelli said, "We have the power of persuasion and consensus building."
Said Whitfield, "After 28 years, I don't think you even have that."
Afterward, Whitfield said it was apparent that neither Marzelli nor Waldrop "has the authority to do anything. And, that the testimony of the first panel pointed that out very clearly."
Whitfield said he believes the committee will look at putting together legislation to set out "minimum standards."
"I think we can use the Interstate Horseracing Act to do that," he said. "We don't want to be overly intrusive."
The first of two panels that the committee heard from yesterday was composed of horsemen, owners, breeders and Marzelli, and mostly addressed the issues of drugs and breeding in racing. A panel that included veterinarians, the executive director of Canter Mid-Atlantic in Gaithersburg, an organization that tries to rescue race horses at the end of their careers, and Waldrop addressed research and the treatment of horses at the end of their racing careers.
"There are caring people in this sport," said Allie Conrad, executive director of Canter, who said just 5 percent of her $35,000 to $40,000 budget comes from the horse racing industry. "We are not here to talk about them. We are here to talk about the people who do not care, the people ruining what used to be the 'sport of kings.' People who are running their horses on injected joints to hide fractures, the people using claiming races to dump their crippled horses. ... "
Panelists said if a "no drug" policy was instituted, the problem of unfit horses racing would solve itself and help correct breeding problems, as chronic difficulties would not be masked and a horse would not be considered for the breeding pool.
After the hearing, Whitfield and Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, also said there will probably be a second hearing, in which Hagerstown native Rick Dutrow, the trainer of Big Brown, who had said the horse was given steroids as a regular part of his training until mid-April, will again be invited. Dutrow was absent because of an illness reported this week by the Associated Press.
Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, said, "There are now more vets and half as many horses," adding, "Over the years, we've traded the time-tested regimen of hay, oats and water for a virtual pharmacopoeia."
Randy Moss, an ESPN and ABC horse racing analyst who has been observing the industry for 30 years, said: "The sport is dysfunctional. It has regulators in 38 states with 38 different sets of rules and 38 different priorities - and not the overall health of the game in mind. The sport is cannibalizing itself."