By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
The recent indictment of more than two dozen people, including racehorse trainers and veterinarians, in a widespread doping scandal has turned a red-hot spotlight on the horseracing industry. And in a welcome development, some long-overdue scrutiny is coming from stakeholders within the industry itself.
In a hard-hitting op-ed last week in the Washington Post, two time Triple Crown winner and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert called for the passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act, a bill that would create much-needed reform in an industry now beset by problems, including a tragic spate of racehorse deaths, in recent years.
“Horse racing is experiencing the most profound crisis in the long history of the sport,” Baffert wrote. “To emerge stronger, we must act decisively to protect the horses who are the stars of the show; nothing else will restore the confidence of fans, gamblers and the general public. And that means federal action.”
Baffert is the biggest name from within the industry so far to endorse change, but he is hardly the only one. In August, 50 horse trainers endorsed the Horseracing Integrity Act in a letter to members of Congress on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, citing “an ongoing crisis of confidence” in the sport.
“We are ready for change and will embrace it for the greater good,” they wrote.
Last year, in another positive move, the California Horse Racing Board launched an inquiry into 23 horse deaths at Santa Anita over a three-month period between 2018 and 2019, to see whether further safety improvements were warranted. Just last week, the board released a 77-page report that found nearly all the horses who died displayed evidence of preexisting conditions exacerbated by intense training, track surface, poor veterinary record keeping and oversight, and the prevalence of legal medication administered on or close to race day.
The report recommends several steps be taken to protect racehorses, including continuing education for both trainers and veterinarians, compulsory testing and exams for racehorses, industry support for research to better understand the causes of injuries, veterinary procedures for safety, expanding the list of prohibited medications and practices, and improved oversight of training practices.
Here is the nub. Around the nation today, public confidence in horse racing is at its lowest point. Reporting that an average of 10 horses die each week at the tracks, the Washington Post, in an editorial published the same day as Baffert’s op-ed, called horse racing a “sport that has outlived its time.”
If the horse racing industry wants to survive, it can start with strongly backing the passage this year of the Horseracing Integrity Act H.R.1754/S.1820 that would ensure that trainers in every state follow a uniform national standard regarding permissible drugs and stringent penalties for doping.
The bill, sponsored in the House by Reps. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., and Andy Barr, R-Ky., and in the Senate by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., would both ban race-day medication and substantially increase out-of-competition testing.
The bill would also grant independent control over rule-making, testing and enforcement oversight regarding drugs and medication to a new authority created by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), an independent entity that oversees testing of athletes at Olympic competitions and many other sporting events held in the United States. Finally, the bill would create a uniform national standard for drug testing overseen by USADA.
Horseracing today is in dire need of reform. Whatever its long-term prognosis, passing the Horseracing Integrity Act now would help drastically improve the welfare of the animals central to this industry. Please contact your federal legislators today. Urge them to cosponsor this important bill and do all they can to help secure its passage.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.