Horse racing debate on Capitol Hill

July 12, 2012

Top horse racing industry figures took different sides before Congress on Thursday over whether the sport needs federal oversight to ban doping.

''We need a new and tougher federal law,'' said Barry Irwin, whose Team Valor ownership group won last year's Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom. He said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing that states don't do an adequate job regulating horse racing, and that a national law is needed so that ''all states will be on a level playing field.''

But Kent Stirling, chairman of the National Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association's medication committee, said in prepared remarks submitted for the record that uniform rules should be implemented by a national compact of states, rather than ''imposed by the federal government, which has no experience or expertise in horse racing.'' Stirling's group represents thoroughbred horse owners and trainers.

Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who chaired the Senate Commerce committee hearing, has proposed legislation to ban race-day medication in horse racing.

''The chronic abuse of horses with painkillers and other drugs is just plain wrong,'' Udall said. ''And it is dangerous. An injured horse, feeling no pain, continues to charge down the track. This endangers every horse. It endangers every rider. And, in the long run, it endangers the sport itself ... Congress should not tolerate doping and cheating in interstate horse racing.''

Udall said Congress considered legislation regulating the sport in the 1980s.

''And industry groups insisted that congressional action was not needed,'' he said. ''Well, it was needed then. And over 30 years later, the need has only increased.''

Ed Martin, president and CEO of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, criticized the legislation.

''It doesn't address the problem or the need,'' he said.

Jeff Gural, who runs the Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey, said that short of an interstate compact, ''the next logical thing would be for the federal government to take this over so that the rules are the same in every state.'' He said that offenders should be banned after one violation, and suggested that scofflaw trainers be hauled off in handcuffs to serve as a deterrent.

Jim Gagliano, president of the Jockey Club, the breed registry for thoroughbreds, said that his group could support federal legislation to oversee horse racing, but he criticized several aspects of Udall's proposal. He said the bill's definition for performance-enhancing drugs was too vague, that the ban on ''knowingly'' providing such drugs to horses set too high a bar for prosecution, and that the penalties might not go far enough.

Dr. Sheila Lyons, founder and director of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, urged Congress to pass the bill.

''We need this legislation to compel compliance with veterinary board regulations,'' she said.

Udall's bill would ban substances such as Lasix, a diuretic that can enhance performance. Race-day use of Lasix is banned in most other countries.

Stirling, of the National Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association, defended the use of Lasix during his actual testimony. The medication is used commonly to stop bleeding in the throat and lungs of racehorses. He said it was necessary to keep horses healthy and it would be inhumane to withhold it.

''Lasix is not performance-enhancing,'' he argued.

Lyons had the opposite conclusion: ''Lasix is performance-enhancing.''