A hearing in Pennsylvania for the horses
Pennsylvania owners/breeders Gretchen Jackson and George Strawbridge spoke of the noble Thoroughbred and its dependence on humans to do the right things. New Jersey trainer turned author Glenn Thompson pointed to a culture of cheating within Thoroughbred racing. Pennsylvania racetrack veterinarian Dr. Kate Papp talked about raceday medication practices. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens leaned on the very real issue of jockey safety.
The rest of us listened–to those witnesses and others–during a three-hour Congressional subcommittee hearing at Unionville High School in Pennsylvania on April 30. Titled “A Review of Efforts to Protect Jockeys and Horses in Horseracing,” the hearing featured two panels, several lawmakers, an auditorium full of Thoroughbred racing leaders and uncomfortable topics.
No matter where you sit on the issues bubbling around racing, there is no denying the fragility of the situation and the importance of the discussion. April’s hearing came five days before the Kentucky Derby, involved major names and could be classified as an early rustling of leaves for potentially radical change. The House Committee on Energy and Finance’s subcommittee on health conducted the hearing, chaired by Pennsylvania Republican Joe Pitts. Other House members in attendance were Kentucky’s Ed Whitfield, Pennsylvania’s Patrick Meehan and Jim Gerlach and Texas’ Michael Burgess (via video conference). They used the hearing to gain knowledge, ask questions, contemplate next steps.
They’re involved for any number of reasons:
• Because of legislation?–?the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act?–?introduced last year to “set national standards and implement fines related to those who medicate horses in order to influence the outcome of a race.” H.R. 1733 hasn’t gone very far but, given the feeling in the room on April 30, it might.
• Because racing is a $40 billion a year industry involving jobs, tax revenue, safety, citizens, gambling.
• Because a 2008 committee hearing after Eight Belles died from injuries sustained in the Kentucky Derby didn’t produce substantial change.
• Because a New York Times series called “Breakdown” focused national attention on the medication rules, regulations and culture of Thoroughbred racing.
• Because the current system set by racing commissions has created a crazy quilt of rules, penalties and practices that change with the state, the racetrack, the race. Maryland does it one way, Pennsylvania another, Kentucky another, California still another, New York yet another. National organizations such as The Jockey Club and Racing Commissioners International suggest–only suggest–policies and best practices. Nobody meant for it to be this way, but to the public and the politicians, such a regulatory strategy fails to satisfy.
At the hearing, the politicians admitted to not being racing experts, but they listened.
Stevens talked about the dangers of riding races, on and against horses who might be sore and medicated. Papp discussed the overuse and abuse of medications. Thompson called for changes within the next six months or federal intervention. Nationally ranked trainer Kenny McPeek, another panelist at the hearing, spoke of the confusion trainers face when balancing the long list of permitted medications. Dr. Greg Ferraro, a veterinarian and director of the University of California at Davis Center for Equine Health, cautioned that without removing raceday medication, the sport will lose its fan base and ultimately cease to exist.
And on and on. The witnesses seemed firmly on the side of banning raceday medication in some form, albeit with differing opinions on how to get there?–?federal regulation, a tiered system starting with graded stakes or 2-year-olds, a national policy from within the sport. Outside of the hearings and public meetings, opinions vary. Some–Jackson, Strawbridge and panelist Arthur Hancock among them–want to prohibit the use of Lasix. Some horsemen held in as high regard say that’s not the solution, that Lasix helps horses and is a regulated alternative to other drug use.
Regardless, the first step ought to be uniformity–and not a Lasix ban. One set of policies on medication, administration, security, testing, penalties that covers the nation, a region, a group of tracks, a group of races, something, needs to be the goal. The points made by the hearing’s panelists and others cannot be ignored. Racing must address the issues, on a large scale, or risk more negative mainstream media attention, further erosion of a fan base and federal intervention.
That last one might be the key to actually making progress, even if it’s not on anyone’s short list of solutions. The government shouldn’t be involved, probably doesn’t want to be involved, but maybe it can push enough to create momentum for reform.
The horses are counting on it.