Strategic Plan, revised federal bill discussed at Congressional hearing

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Jan. 28, 2020

An amended bill that would focus on equine health and safety, and progress—particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region—on related reforms were discussed during a Congressional hearing on the proposed Horse Racing Integrity Act.

The hearing, held Jan. 28 by the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, which falls under the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, broke no new ground by proponents of the bill. The HIA would grant the Federal Trade Commission oversight of the Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Association and place the United States Anti-Doping Association in charge of equine medication, drug testing and penalty enforcement.

The HIA, which under its latest language would govern Thoroughbred, Standardbred and Quarter Horse racing, is limited to equine medication policy, testing and enforcement. The hearing, however, was titled “Legislation to Promote the Health and Safety of the Racehorse.” That, according to several individuals who provided testimony, should be the focus—should there eventually be federal legislation.

“Unfortunately, I am opposed to (the HIA),” said Dennis Drazin, Chief Executive Officer of Darby Development, which operates Monmouth Park on behalf of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “I have advocated for about 20 years that the horseracing industry needs to conduct its business the same as a major sports league, with a commissioner who is empowered to regulate the industry. In my opinion, there is no need to have the federal government take over what is currently a state-by-state regulatory format.”

Drazin said he believes the HIA as written can’t pass constitutional muster and would be challenged by various stakeholders in horse racing; Jockey Club Vice President Bill Lear, who testified in favor of the legislation, insisted the bill had been vetted and said supporters are confident it would withstand legal challenges.

Drazin said if the HIA did pass, it would be “only a small part of all the needed reforms for our industry.” To that end, he said he has been participating in a National Thoroughbred Racing Association special committee that is working on all-inclusive legislation truly focused on equine health and safety.

Missing from the HIA, Drazin said, are injury reporting protocols, racing surface best practices, uniform medication and testing standards, regulatory transparency and portability of veterinary records, riding crop rules, and aftercare policies that ensure a home or second career for all equine retirees. “The Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association has worked very hard the last six months on amendments to the bill that would be very helpful to the industry,” he said.

Drazin also echoed testimony from fellow witness Ed Martin, President of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, that regulation must begin when horses are born. ARCI for a few years has repeatedly said the breeding industry is under-regulated, which makes regulation of racehorses more difficult. Martin called it a “gaping hole” in any legislation.

Drazin also said he is opposed to a ban on the anti-bleeder medication Lasix. The HIA doesn’t expressly ban the medication used to treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, but it’s a foregone conclusion HADA, the authority that would make policy, would do so given The Jockey Club’s opposition to having any medication administered within 24 hours of a race.

Dr. Kathleen Anderson, an equine veterinarian who has practiced with Thoroughbreds for 34 years and is a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, in her comments to lawmakers said she has concerns that elimination of Lasix “will not improve the safety and welfare of the horse. There is substantial documented evidence behind the safe and efficacious use of furosemide to prevent (EIPH), a respiratory condition common in elite athletes, including human athletes.”

Anderson noted the importance of veterinarians who deal with equines on a daily basis and said it’s important to make a distinction between the philosophy of medication regulation in horse sports and human sports. She said USADA “does not contemplate the welfare of its athletes—this is not their role, which is a concern for me as a veterinarian serving as a steward for the horse.”

Early in 2019 stakeholders—horsemen, racetrack officials, veterinarians and regulators—in seven states launched the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities, which already has resulted in adoption of reforms regionally and around the country.

Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities

“Uniformity, we can all agree, should be the holy grail of our efforts, for it is the glue that will bind racing jurisdictions together with cohesive policies, not just on medication such as (the HIA) attempts to achieve, but on all matters impacting risk management of the racehorse,” Anderson said. “Uniform medication rules, enforcement and penalties; uniform laboratory testing, accreditation and interpretation; uniform regulatory veterinary duties; uniform track surface requirements; racing office policy and (riding) crop rules; and uniform injury response, records and investigations—the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan is an example of the work being done by collaborative racing stakeholders to fulfill the mandate of ‘safety and welfare of the racehorse’ while simultaneously ensuring the integrity and level playing field within our American racing environment.”

Anderson also noted the formation in late 2019 of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, which is working on reforms as well.

Those who testified in favor of the IHA repeated many of the same talking points that have spun a narrative over the past five years: There is “rampant doping,” a “patchwork of rules,” and the National Uniform Medication Program has “failed,”—even though it has been widely adopted. Lasix, a legal therapeutic medication, has been branded as “doping,” a term used for illegal drug administrations.

The House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection took no action on the HIA, which has more than 220 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and about 20 in the Senate.

Congressman Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, acknowledged the economic impact of the horse industry in his state and the country. He expressed a desire for the racing industry to work together on a solution to ensure the safety of racehorses and jockeys.

“I’m sure we all agree that the welfare of the racehorse is of utmost importance,” Pallone said. “I’m committed to working with all stakeholders to promote the health and safety of horses and jockeys. The horseracing industry is continuing to actively work on proposals to further that. I’m optimistic we can all work together to build a consensus approach.”

Drazin indicated he hopes the NTRA special committee can put forth a proposal within six months.

“I’ve always had an open door and continue to be patient and willing to incorporate feedback (in the legislation),” said Rep. Paul Tonko, a New York Democrat and co-sponor of the HIA. “This is a medication-driven bill, but there are other ripple effects that could come from this to the good. We need action, not more promises.”