Federal committee hears pros, cons of medication regulation bill

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: June 22, 2018

A June 22 congressional subcommittee hearing on the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017 didn’t come close to offering a consensus on whether the legislation is necessary, but it did give lawmakers a much better view of the regulatory landscape given unusually balanced testimony.

In a major change from previous federal hearings on related bills, the witness panel was equally split between supporters and opponents of the measure, which would create an entity controlled by the United States Anti-Doping Agency and, though not stated in the bill, the industry groups pushing for its passage. The bill, which would also ban race-day administration of the anti-bleeding medication Lasix, was introduced in May 2017 and remains without a sponsor in the United States Senate.

Members of the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee, which falls under House Energy and Commerce Committee, expressed much interest in hearing about the overall health and welfare of racehorses. In fact, Rep. Tony Cardenas of California said it was “unfortunate” there wasn’t a veterinarian on the panel to address the use of Lasix and other health-related issues, but the hearing did give horsemen’s groups and opportunity to speak for the majority of owners and trainers in the U.S.

Attorney Alan Foreman, Chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association—one of more than 50 organizations that oppose the federal bill—outlined the progress made by various racing states in adopting uniform rules and discussed the possible complications of the legislation given the fact the Independent Congressional Research Service deemed the 2015 version unconstitutional and the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the longtime federal ban on sports betting in all but four states. He predicted passage would “mire the industry in years of litigation.”

“It strips the states of their ability to control their state-legalized and -regulated industries, contains an unfunded mandate that gives unfettered taxing authority to a private, federally appointed group with no accountability rather than the states, deprives horsemen of current due process protections and throws them into the federal justice system, and threatens the economic well-being of the industry and the best interests of the health and welfare of the horse and rider,” Foreman said.

The original version of the Horseracing Integrity Act didn’t include a direct ban on Lasix, but it did contain language that would have allowed the oversight group to eventually ban it on race day. Foreman said the current version of the bill is a “smokescreen for the proponents’ true purpose—the elimination of a safe, effective, necessary and tightly-regulated medication that is given on race day to protect horses from bleeding in the respiratory tract.”

State racing regulators unanimously support the continued use of Lasix on race day. It was noted during the hearing that though the therapeutic medication isn’t used on race day in European countries, it’s regularly used in training.

Ed Martin, President of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, told lawmakers horse racing performs more testing than any other sport and, like human sports, is challenged in detecting substances for which there are no tests. He claimed racing industry testing is stricter than that used by the World Anti-Doping Agency, and also noted that human athletes are often granted therapeutic use exemptions for performance-enhancing drugs that aren’t permitted in racehorses in competition.

“There are things the federal government can do to help,” Martin said. “This proposal is not one of them.”

Stuart Janney III, a longtime Thoroughbred owner/breeder who chairs The Jockey Club, said state regulatory structures haven’t adapted to an environment of extensive movement of horses from state to state and the launch of interstate simulcasts in the 1980s. He again offered The Jockey Club argument that the National Uniform Medication Program is lagging behind in its adoption; the THA and other groups say otherwise based on Racing Medication and Testing Consortium updates.

The National Uniform Medication Program, which has four components, was outlined in a memo to committee members prior to the June 22 hearing. The memo notes that states that account for more than 96% of pari-mutuel handle in the U.S. conduct testing at accredited laboratories; that the Controlled Therapeutic Medication Schedule is in place in states that account for 97% of total handle; that third-party Lasix administration has been implemented in states the represent 87% of handle; and that the Multiple Medication Violation Penalty System now accounts for 40% of total handle.

“Despite decades of trying to achieve uniformity we have failed,” Janney said. “Congress has helped our industry in the past; in 1978 this committee passed the Interstate Horseracing Act, which allowed wagering across state lines. Today, 90% of wagers are interstate in nature. We would have no industry without it.”

The Horseracing Integrity Act includes language stating that the jurisdiction and authority granted to the Federal Trade Commission and the Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority could terminate after five years if an interstate compact is adopted under multiple conditions. Janney, however, dismissed the compact concept, which is now building steam in the Mid-Atlantic region and is seen as a viable means of quickly adopting model medication and testing rules.

A back-and-forth pro-and-con about Lasix broke no new ground, but it did serve to educate many members of the committee who hadn’t heard about the scientific evidence supporting use of Lasix on race day. The bill clearly states race-day Lasix would be banned; horsemen’s groups firmly support its continued use based on scientific evidence and protection of the animal.

“There is a clear distinction between doping and therapeutic medications,” said Eric Hamelback, Chief Executive Officer of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “Lasix has been safely used for more than 40 years. A minority of voices have called for a ban, and those who do so equate Lasix with doping.”

Hamelback said supporters of the Horseracing Integrity Act intentionally “blur the line” and misrepresent race-day medication. The only permitted substance is Lasix, but people are wrongly led to believe other therapeutic medications used in training for the health and welfare of the horse are used on race day.

Speakers also noted possible economic and welfare concerns that could result from a ban on Lasix. The American Association of Equine Practioners, which also opposes the federal bill, has repeatedly stated the medication should used to treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemhorrage until another viable treatment or therapy is discovered.

“If you move to eliminate Lasix you will force owners out the business and force horse sales to (make public the fact) horses are potential bleeders,” Foreman said in response to a question about the FTC’s involvement. “It would be like a car dealer having to announce the product is likely to have a problem. Are you going to buy that product? That’s why you don’t see breeders’ organizations supporting this bill. It will kill the sales.”

Martin told the committee there appears to be hypocrisy in that those who support the federal bill don’t seem concerned about the regulation of substances—particularly those that affect bone development—that are given to young horses before they even race. Janney didn’t argue with his point, saying: “I think it’s an area that has to be looked at.”

Martin later offered lawmakers a suggestion if they want the federal government to assist horse racing: Pass a bill that simply requires all racing states to adopt the ARCI model rules upon reference.

More on medication regulation from the ARCI annual conference.