Next week a bill which would nationalize drug testing and safety standards for horse racing will get its first hearing before Congress.
The US House Committee on Commerce and Energy’s Subcommittee on Consumer Commerce and Protection is expected to take testimony on the Horseracing Integrity Act on Tuesday morning. The bipartisan bill would form a private supervisory body to oversee drug testing on horses in US thoroughbred, quarter horse and harness racing. For the current version of the bill which was filed last March, it will be the first hearing.
The sport is controlled at a state level currently, with some form of horse racing legal in 38 states.
The bill’s primary sponsors, US Reps. Paul Tonko (D-New York) and Andy Barr (R-Kentucky), have filed similar bills in prior sessions of Congress. But the spike in racing deaths over the past year at Santa Anita Park has resulted in increased inspection in the sport overall. Sponsored by lawmakers representing two horse racing hotbeds, the current version of the bill has most of House members signed on as cosponsors.
Following the Santa Anita crisis, a number of track operators have announced voluntary measures which would slowly introduce a ban on race-day medications over the next two years. The Stronach Group, owner of Santa Anita, together with Churchill Downs Inc., the New York Racing Association, and others have approved that policy. That implies the 2021 Triple Crowns would be run without Lasix, an anti-bleeding drug which can be administered to horses prior to the race.
Retired Jockey, Ex Track Owner to Testify
Those who have been invited to testify at the hearing on Tuesday, include Chris McCarron, a retired Hall of Fame jockey who supports the measure; Joe De Francis, ex CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club and present chairman of the National Horseracing Advisory Council for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS); and Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action.
Irby, in a statement to Casino.org. said he was happy to see Congress take up the measure.
He said, “We applaud the leadership, dedication, and tireless work of Chairwoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois), Rep. Paul Tonko, and Rep. Andy Barr to advance this legislation that will end doping, save equine lives, and help bring integrity back to American horseracing. Animal Wellness Action will continue to press Congress to pass the legislation, and see the President ink his sixth animal protection measure into law before the 116th Congress ends.”
Edward J. Martin, president and CEO of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, is another who has been invited to testify. Previously Martin was not in favor the bill.
Advocates of the Horseracing Integrity Act say that limiting medications and following to international racing standards will make the sport safer, as in North America, racehorses die or suffer injuries at five times more than elsewhere.
Nevertheless, while the bill, or some of its measures at least, has the support of some racing organizations, others in the business are worried that banning race-day Lasix could have the opposite effect. Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA), indicated the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s report which examined the dozens of deaths which occurred at Santa Anita. Although eight substances were found in some of the horses, none of them were banned nor were they given at levels beyond state guidelines.
The HBPA represents approximately 30,000 owners and trainers.
Worries Regarding Funding
Others have voiced worries about how the initiatives which the bill begins would be funded. Pat Cummings, executive director of the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, informed Casino.org that the only modification from the 2017 bill to the legislation being considered currently is the old bill banning states from increasing the takeout of pari-mutuel wager pool to pay for the measures. That provision is not present in the new bill.
That means states could require tracks to increase the hold from wagering pools to pay for initiatives the act would establish. In most states, the takeout rates range between 15 to 20 percent, depending on the type of bet. A higher takeout, along with the emergence of sports betting in more states and its lower hold rates, could prompt customers to take their betting dollars elsewhere.
Bettors wagered $11 billion on US horse racing in 2019, down nearly $230 million, or 2 percent, from 2018. Since 2014, it was the first year that the domestic handle dropped.
Cummings said the foundation, an advisor for the racing industry, does not have a view on the Horseracing Integrity Act. But it does have worries about the overall long-term financial feasibility of the sport, especially as winnings are propped up by other gaming revenues.
Cummings said, “We’re not taking a position pro or against. But the funding should not be placed on the back of horseplayers. And there should be a concern the two bills are different.”