If each of the 32 NFL teams set their own rules for doping, there would be constant confusion and an outcry for reform. But that’s exactly how the horse racing industry operates. Spectators and viewers watching the Preakness Stakes on Saturday will see the spectacle of the crowds and competitive races, but they’ll likely be unaware that, unlike other national sports that have a single regulating body, horse racing has 38 jurisdictions overseeing approximately 100 racetracks in the United States.
Like the NFL, horse racing is a national industry that demands consistent standards, rather than state-by-state regulations. Currently, each state’s racing commission sets up its own rules, resulting in different regulations, testing programs and penalties with regard to medicating horses. Trainers routinely move horses among states for races, enabling violators penalized in one state to continue racing in another. The industry has been unable to remedy these inconsistencies and implement a uniform national drug program, and horses, jockeys and bettors are paying the price.
We’ve long recognized that some in the industry try to address racehorses’ welfare. After an increase of racehorse fatalities at Santa Anita Park, The Stronach Group, who owns that racetrack along with Pimlico, where the Preakness Stakes is held, proposed safety measures at its California tracks that include reductions in the use of common medications and the eventual ban on race-day medications. A coalition of racetracks also announced similar restrictions that will require individual state regulatory approval. However, this piecemeal approach will not protect racehorses when individual state racing commissions have veto power.
Horse racing is not regulated by a single, national entity that can mandate regulations for every state; the only mechanism for facilitating uniform medication regulations and enforcement is via the federal Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019, H.R.1754, introduced by Reps. Paul Tonko, a Democrat from New York, and Andy Barr, a Republican from Kentucky. This bill requires the industry to pay for the incremental costs associated with the enhanced anti-doping program that would be implemented, not taxpayers.
We are calling on Congress to pass this legislation to help protect both the human and equine athletes.
H.R. 1754 would grant independent control over rulemaking, testing and enforcement of a national anti-doping program to an authority whose board is composed of anti-doping and horse racing experts selected by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency — the same entity recognized by Congress as the official anti-doping agency for our Olympic, Pan American and Paralympic sports. It would also substantially increase out-of-competition testing, where horses are randomly tested without prior notification. This is the foundation of effective anti-doping programs, yet less than 1 percent of U.S. Thoroughbred racing tests are performed out-of-competition.
When horses retire from racing, they should be healthy enough to move on to new pastures and new careers. There are ample opportunities for second careers in the show ring, on the trail or as therapeutic companions to people recovering from traumatic illnesses. However, chronic injuries suffered by horses that are not allowed time to rest and recuperate (due to lax rules that permit the use of medications capable of masking pain so racing can continue) reduce those opportunities for these horses after racing.
Major professional sports have taken steps over the last few years to rid themselves of illegal doping in order to create a more level playing field and protect athletes. Horse racing should be a clean and fair sport for all involved, and races should be won based upon the natural abilities of racehorses, not the effects of performance enhancing drugs. Many in the horse racing industry are trying, but they need Congress’ help to make significant change possible.
This bill contains another game changer: a ban on race-day medication. Currently in Maryland and across the U.S., the majority of racehorses are given a common heart drug and diuretic within hours of each race. While opponents of past versions of the bill remain vociferous in their support for giving this drug to horses, we and many people and organizations from the horse racing industry see this as a practice that must end — for the horses’ health and safety and the integrity of the sport.
Banning race-day medication, enacting more stringent and uniform medication rules, increasing penalties for violators and expanding out-of-competition testing will go a long way toward restoring integrity to horse racing, as well as enhancing the welfare of the racehorse — the heart and soul of the sport.
Valerie Pringle (firstname.lastname@example.org) is campaign manager for Equine Protection at the Humane Society of the United States.