Congressional study looks at drug abuse, injuries in horse racing

National governing body discussed for sport

May 18, 2010|By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — Federal lawmakers say they are studying whether horse racing is doing enough to curb abusive drug practices endangering horses and their jockeys — or whether Congress must step in.

Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, and Rep. Edward Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky, are reviewing dozens of pages of data received from three industry groups Friday in response to the legislators' series of safety-related questions. Udall and Whitfield want to learn whether the industry has toughened its anti-doping rules since a congressional hearing two years ago.

The hearing followed the breakdown of Eight Belles after the 2008 Kentucky Derby, and of Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness.

"Such high-profile breakdowns, and Barbaro's injury in particular, may not be directly related to these longstanding problems in the sport," the lawmakers said in a recent letter to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, one of the industry groups. "Nevertheless, they did spark justifiable scrutiny of practices that critics have long maintained are harmful to horses, jockeys and the integrity of the sport."

While not as widely witnessed as the Barbaro and Eight Belles tragedies, an untold number of other horses are badly injured in races ever year, and many are euthanized. Udall and Whitfield want to know how many. The lawmakers say painkillers and other drugs can mask horses' pain that would otherwise signal impending harm on the track.

National statistics on numbers of horse racing injuries, deaths and trainers' drug-penalty violations are hard to come by. That's because, like boxing, the industry has no central governing body. Rather, states have varying resources and philosophies on drug testing and enforcement.

Whitfield said it "would be good for the industry" to have a governing body.

"There are many people in the racing industry supportive of a body that would have the authority and enforcement mechanism to make significant changes in the industry," Whitfield said in an interview last week before Saturday's Preakness Stakes. "And I don't believe anyone believes the Jockey Club or the NTRA alone can do it because they don't have the authority."

The thoroughbred racing group, a Kentucky-based trade association whose members include racetracks and horsemen's groups, contends the sport doesn't need a central body. Whitfield said legislation would probably be needed to form such an organization.

"More progress has been made by the horse industry during the past two years than during the past two decades," Alex Waldrop, president of the thoroughbred group, said in a written response to a Baltimore Sun query. "A central governing body would not have been any more effective. Today, we have better scientific research, more comprehensive reporting requirements, much-improved regulatory uniformity and broader cooperation among states and racing participants than ever before."

Waldrop cited Pimlico Race Course as an example. Last year, Waldrop said, horses at Pimlico were not tested for inflated levels of TCO2 — a process known as "milkshaking" intended to combat horses' fatigue — until after their races were complete. Post-race testing "is not an ideal way to test for TCO2," Waldrop said in his blog.

This year, he said, the Maryland Racing Commission approved a pre-race testing program that Waldrop called "much preferred."

The improvement came as part of a program by the thoroughbred association's Safety and Integrity Alliance to examine everything from riding crops to the manner in which horses are tested for dozens of drugs. So far, the alliance has accredited Pimlico and 16 other tracks — representing about 60 percent of all wagering at thoroughbred tracks in the United States and Canada, according to a copy of the association's letter to Udall and Whitfield.

Laurel Park has not been accredited. It is listed in the letter as "considering accreditation in 2010." Alliance approval is not a requirement for tracks to operate.

Belmont Park, site of the June 5 Belmont Stakes in New York, has been accredited.

Udall and Whitfield said they will now consider whether the industry's voluntary measures are adequate. They are reviewing responses from the thoroughbred association, the Maryland Jockey Club and Racing Commissioners International.

Depending on their findings, Udall said, "additional hearings may be needed, and we should keep everything on the table. It may well be we need a federal legislative solution."

Among other questions, Udall and Whitfield asked the organizations how many horses suffered injuries or death in races.

The Jockey Club replied that there were 2.04 deaths per 1,000 starts from November 2008 through October 2009 in thoroughbred flat races at 73 American or Canadian tracks. The club provided no injury figures, saying it was working with veterinarians and epidemiologists to develop a database.

A number of states, including Maryland, have banned steroids in racing. The drugs were not regulated by Maryland as recently as 2008.

Udall and Whitfield said they continue to be disturbed by troubling anecdotes such as trainers or owners who continue in the business despite repeated infractions or safety complaints by jockeys or tracks.

Phenylbutazone, or bute, was the most common drug abused at Pimlico and Laurel, according to a review by The Baltimore Sun several years ago. Overusing the anti-inflammatory drug can brings fines and lead to suspension or disqualification.

"So long as you have people who are winning and using abusive practices, that influences everyone else — and it's not a good influence," Udall said.

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