Save horses by better regulating use of performance enhancing drugs | COMMENTARY

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

Swiss Skydiver wins the 2020 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, edging out #9 Authentic. Baltimore Sun Staff Kenneth K. Lam

As the former CEO of Pimlico and Laurel racetracks in Maryland and the current chairman of The Humane Society of the United States' National Horse Racing Advisory Council, what happens in horse racing and to horses is an extremely important issue to me.

In recent years, racing has witnessed equine injuries that are tied to performance-enhancing and misused therapeutic drugs. Some incidents are the result of money and greed, but most highlight that a weak and fractured state-by-state regulatory system is incapable of monitoring and regulating a $40 billion a year economic powerhouse.


This March, the FBI arrested 27 people for equine drug violations. In unveiling the indictments, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said, “These defendants engaged in this conduct not for the love of the sport, and certainly not out of concern for the horses … The care and respect due to the animals competing, as well as the integrity of racing, are matters of deep concern.”

Federal legislation would regulate the industry and prevent the unnecessary death of horses. Enacting this legislation to reform horse racing and protect the equine and human athletes that form the foundation of the sport and business has strong support from an incredibly broad coalition of industry participants and beyond. Those that support reform include major racetrack operators such as The Stronach Group, Churchill Downs Inc., the New York Racing Association, and Keeneland Association Inc.; major industry organizations such as The Jockey Club and Breeders' Cup Ltd; thousands of individual horse owners and breeders represented by organizations such as the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association; and major animal welfare organizations such as The Humane Society of the U.S. and Animal Wellness Action.


The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act has been moving through Congress with overwhelmingly bipartisan support and has 261 Democrat and Republican co-sponsors in the U.S. House. On Sept. 29, the House showed just how universal support is for reform by passing the HISA with a unanimous voice vote.

Now it is the Senate’s turn to act, and the bill also has strong bipartisan support there. The Senate bill was introduced by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, along with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, Martha McSally, a Republican from Arizona, and Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.

The HISA will create a uniform, national structure to regulate medication and safety that will replace the current disjointed state-by-state system, in which each of the 38 states that allows wagering on horse racing has its own set of rules and regulations, and its own oversight body. A critically important part of this new national structure will be the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which currently oversees drug testing and medication policy for the U.S. Olympic teams and other sports and is universally acknowledged as the greatest repository of scientific expertise on the planet regarding the impacts of drugs and medications on athletic performance and health.

USADA will enforce unified anti-doping protocols with rigorous testing, both on race day and out of competition. USADA will work under a new nongovernmental regulatory authority that will set clear, universal standards and bring unprecedented transparency to horse racing. The ability of bad actors to game the system and avoid detection will evaporate.

This year has seen sharp divisions in America, and some believe that the government can’t meet the pressing needs of our nation. But many good things are happening, and bipartisan legislation that will improve the health, safety and welfare of racehorses and the jockeys who ride them is one important example. The U.S. Senate should join the House in unanimously passing the HISA.

Joe De Francis ( was CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club from 1989 to 2007 and is chairman of The Humane Society of the United States' National Horse Racing Advisory Council.