By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
Days before the Kentucky Derby kicks off in his home state next week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has announced he will introduce a bill to reform horse racing. This is a promising development for the future of race horses in a sport that has increasingly come under a cloud because of the reckless doping of horses and a spate of horse deaths, drawing criticism not just from outside watchers but from trainers and other stakeholders within the industry.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020 has a strong chance of success in Congress, coming as it does from Sen. McConnell, a Republican from a state with deep economic stakes in racing. The bill will also be endorsed by Churchill Downs Incorporated, the Louisville-based operator of the Kentucky Derby, and by The Jockey Club, the Breeders Cup and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
This is an issue we have been invested in for many years now, and our Humane Society Legislative Fund team has long championed federal legislation in Congress to reform horse racing. We look forward to working with Sen. McConnell and other cosponsors to strengthen their bill, and we’ve offered him our recommendations.
The bill announced today would focus on two key factors that have led to a number of racetrack deaths in recent years: the reckless doping of race horses and race track safety.
An average of 8.5 horses die during races every week, according to The Jockey Club’s 2019 equine injury database, and that doesn’t include fatalities during training. Some reports point to doping and track safety as potential contributing factors. Last year, for instance, a California Horse Racing Board inquiry implicated track surface and legal medication administered on or close to race day, among other factors, in the deaths of 23 horse deaths over a three-month period.
It is tragic that so many horse deaths could have been avoided with stronger attention to maintenance and weather effects on tracks. If racehorses are going to run at top speeds, they should compete on tracks built and maintained to keep them safe.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020 would also mandate common standards for all of the nation’s 38 racing jurisdictions. Right now, state regulations on doping and track safety vary greatly, and this hodge-podge allows unscrupulous owners and trainers to move racehorses from one jurisdiction to another with fewer restrictions to continue doping horses and avoid penalties. Each state’s racing commission determines which drugs can be administered to racehorses and sets the penalties for those who violate these rules.
Over the years, it’s been clear to see that state commissions are unable to handle the investigative and enforcement burdens involved to keep racing safe for the horses. The McConnell bill would give this job to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the entity appointed to handle drug testing for all U.S. Olympic athletes. USADA would operate as a private, independent agency, not as a federal bureaucracy, and prominent stakeholders in American horseracing, including The Jockey Club, support its inclusion.
The endorsement of this bill by Churchill Downs, host of one of the sport’s best known events, is an honest acknowledgment of the problems that beset horse racing today and signal to the field that more dead horses and more trainer scandals will prove much worse for the sport than tighter regulatory structures. As the race begins next week, with altered schedules, shorter race times and a TV-only audience in the times of the coronavirus, we will be looking forward to seeing, and sharing with you, more details about the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020. You can count on us to be at the front and center of this fight for comprehensive reform for animals in horse racing.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.