Amended Horse Racing Integrity Bill Takes ‘Step Forward,’ Passes Congressional Committee

Posted on: September 11, 2020, 03:49h. 

Last updated on: September 11, 2020, 01:18h.

A bill that would nationalize horse racing standards on drug use and track safety cleared a US House committee Wednesday and is now headed for a floor vote.

Horse Racing
Horses break from the gate for a turf race at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club at Del Mar, Calif. (Image: Del Mar)

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act passed in the Energy and Commerce Committee by a 46-5 in a markup session. US Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), who sponsors the bill with US Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), presented an amended bill to the committee that mirrors one US Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) filed in that chamber on Wednesday as well. The amended bill passed by a 46-5 vote.

McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, announced his bill last week. His proposal took Tonko and Barr’s Horseracing Integrity Act, which sought to create an independent national governing body to oversee drug standards in the sport, and added language to include track safety.

Tonko said the committee vote represented a “major step forward” in getting the legislation passed.

“Our bill delivers common sense medication and track safety standards that protect America’s horses and jockeys, needed progress that will put this popular and historic sport on track for a strong recovery and a bright future,” he said in a statement.

It remains uncertain when the House may take a vote on the issue.

Bill has Broad Support

The two House members, who represent areas where racing is big business, have proposed the bill in each Congressional session dating back to 2015. The current bill, filed last year, picked up significant interest because of the spate of horse deaths at Santa Anita, which triggered a national debate about the future of the sport. As a result, 255 fellow Congress members, a clear majority of the House, have signed on as cosponsors.

The bill also has the support of key industry businesses and organizations, such as Churchill Downs, 1/ST (The Stronach Group), the New York Racing Association, The Jockey Club, The Breeders’ Cup, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

The bill also has the support of animal welfare groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, the Water Hay Oats Alliance, and Animal Wellness Action.

Veterinarian House Member Raises Concerns

However, there are some concerns lingering. One specifically deals with the use of Lasix, a drug used to control pulmonary bleeding. Except in North America, it’s mostly illegal around the world to administer the drug to horses on race days.

In the committee hearing, Tonko told his colleagues that the bill would phase out the drug in racing over a three-year period, allowing states to seek an exemption for non-stakes races for horses 3-years-old and up.

The bill also calls for a committee to review the use of Lasix, and that panel may allow its use within 48 hours of a race. That’s if it unanimously agrees that the drug does not enhance performance and is in the best interest of the sport.

Not all lawmakers saw that as progress. US Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Oregon), a veterinarian, said the race-day Lasix ban could be life-threatening, especially for the top horses in the sport. In addition, he told the panel the bill doesn’t take into consideration the expertise practicing veterinarians can provide.

The conflict of interest section essentially eliminates the ability for veterinarians and other experts to serve on this board and its related committees,” Schrader said. “That is unacceptable”

Tonko, in rebuttal, said that equine medical professionals would play a major role in the new organization, especially when it comes to the anti-doping and medication control committees. However, it’s important that those who serve on the panel do so “free from active racing entanglements,” he added.

McConnell: Horse Racing Needs National Board

While the House committee approved the amended bill in its chamber, McConnell went to the Senate floor to introduce the sister bill, which lists US Sens. Martha McSally (R-AZ), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) as cosponsors.

McConnell noted the importance of having an independent national body oversee key aspects of the sport. Currently, regulatory bodies in each of the 38 racing-legal states make those decisions on their own. In addition, there have been questions about the impartiality of some regulators, who may be active owners, trainers, or have another interest in the sport.

“Baseball, football, and other professional sports have a central regulatory authority. Thoroughbred racing should too,” McConnell said.