Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Horse Industry One Length in Front of Congress

Learning from other professional leagues being embarrassed by Congress, most notably MLB, the Thoroughbred Safety Committee (TSC) took the step of recommending that steroids and toe grabs be banned and new rules be implemented regarding the use of whips in horse racing before today's Congressional subcommittee hearing on the sport.

The proposals were endorsed by various parties - breeders, veterinarians and the operators of the largest tracks - a first in that various parties have come together to formalize a plan for cleaning up the sport. In addition the TSC will present recommendations on the use of illegal drugs and therapeutic medications as well as improving drug testing. The TSC will also propose toughing the penalties for rule violations including lifetime bans for major infractions.

Once steroids are banned in all 38 states where racing occurs, the U.S. will then be on equal footing with how the rest of the racing world deals with steroids. The toe grab recommendation will reduce the number of deaths at the track. Toe grabs and other devices worn on the front shoes of the horses have been found to put undue stress on the legs of the horses.

Today's hearing entitled, "Breeding, Drugs and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Racing and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred Racehorse," may ultimately consider a the creation of a central body to govern horse racing, similar to the British model. Some statistics released in conjunction with the hearing are troubling. Of the approximately 15,000 licensed horse trainers in the U.S., 9% have been cited for medication violations including performance enhancement. Unfortunately the one trainer who was expected to shed the most light at the hearing, controversial Big Brown trainer Rick Dutrow, will not testify, due to illness.

Dutrow has been ill since the Belmont, but did submit his written comments to Congress. He claims to have let Congress know in advance, but Brin Frazier, a spokeswoman for the subcommittee, was unaware of this development and stated that the committee members expected him to testify today.

Rick, aren't you a little bit past the age of playing the "sick card" to get out of an uncomfortable situation? Just over a week ago, you were talking tough, like the good old days before the Belmont about looking forward to testifying, but you would need to have your vet present.

To ensure the sport cleans up its act, the subcommittees ranking minority member, Representative Ed Whitfield, Republican of Kentucky, has decided to hit it where it hurts: their wallet. By threatening to reopen the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978, which allowed simulcast wagering and provides the basis for online betting allows wagering to take place across state lines. This betting accounted for 90% of last year's $15 billion wagered.

Whitfield's goals include more transparency, more information regarding the use of drugs and concern for the animals safety. By placing the simulcast money on the line, he hopes to force some minimum standards regarding these concerns.

As I see it, the issue is the lack of a central governing body that oversees all 38 racing jurisdictions. If I was a breeder, it would be a herculean task to manage what shots I could give my horse if I wanted to race him in 4 different states. Simplify the process, level the playing field and then everyone plays by the same rules. Sure there will always be others looking for an edge, but at least the sport will be taking a step in the right direction.

Rick, there is such thing as video conferencing. If they did that, I wonder if you would have pulled a Sammy Sosa and conveniently forget how to speak English. At least Sammy showed up when called to testify!

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