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Congress plans hearing on horse racing's troubles
By Staff Writer - courier-journal.com
Jun 17, 2008, 09:18


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As Congress this week takes up the issue of drugs and fatal breakdowns in horse racing, some are suggesting an independent national governing body should be created to oversee racing rules, including medication.

"I don't think we are going to solve our problems without a national body that has the authority and the power to make decisions for everyone," said Rick Arthur, the veterinarian who is the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board. "Otherwise we're going to continue to fight these issues one state at a time."

Many industry leaders interviewed agree that the state-by-state regulatory system is inconsistent and makes it more difficult to adopt changes. But they are opposed to turning the rulemaking over to the federal government.

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, the Hopkinsville Republican who requested a congressional hearing scheduled for Thursday, said in a telephone interview that he believes racing could be better served by a commissioner or minimum national standards for medication rules.

The decision to call the hearing came after televised incidents marred several of racing's recent big events, most notably the fatal breakdown of Eight Belles after her second-place finish in the May 3 Kentucky Derby.

Her death reignited debates about safety, including whether horses are given drugs to improve performance as well as treat ailments.

Whitfield said the decision to call the hearing resulted from "the lack of uniformity, the lack of transparency, the lack of one entity that can provide uniform enforcement."

The hearing is also expected to involve testimony from industry officials on other safety-related topics like whether the breeding market favors speed over durability.

Tom Amoss, the leading trainer at this spring's Churchill Downs meet, said at a forum in downtown Louisville last week that racing needs a national ruling body -- representing all facets of the industry. One of the reasons he cited was the variation from state to state in medication rules.

Alex Waldrop, the president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said the work of an industry coalition, called the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, lays out a national template that states can choose to follow.

"Horse racing is already one of the most highly regulated sports in the world, so we welcome the opportunity to appear before Congress because we think we have a good story to tell," he said. "We're already working to promote the health and safety of our horses, and there's more we're going to do."

The consortium's model rule banning race-day medication except for anti-bleeding drugs is in place in 32 of 38 racing states, including Kentucky. A proposed rule banning most anabolic steroids and regulating the use of four of them has been adopted by 10 states, according to the consortium and the NTRA.

Kentucky is considering the rule, but is waiting for testing levels to be established for blood to complement the ones currently available for urine.

Waldrop said he believes the steroid regulation will be in place in most racing states by early next year.

"We've seen things happen in months which used to take years," Waldrop said. "So the industry is moving forward and making more progress, and we're doing a better job."

Waldrop said the NTRA supports greater uniformity in racing's medication rules but without federal regulation. Any federal regulation of horse racing would likely reopen the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978, which allowed simulcast wagering and provides the basis for Internet horse betting by allowing it to take place across state lines.

"Any effort to give yet another party a consent or an opportunity to interrupt that very important interstate commerce is not acceptable to horsemen or tracks," Waldrop said.

A Churchill Downs Inc. spokesman said the Louisville company that owns four tracks in as many states -- including its namesake on Central Avenue -- supports standardization of racing rules, including medication.

No one from Churchill is scheduled to testify Thursday, when the company will hold its annual meeting in Louisville.

A nongovernmental authority oversees racing in Britain, but Waldrop said he's not sure a nongovernmental body or a federal group could oversee U.S. racing because, unlike other major sports, racing's funding mechanism is legalized pari-mutuel betting, and gambling is decided at the state level.

"There are legal impediments to private regulation of a sport based upon pari-mutuel wagering," Waldrop said. "States have an interest in regulating pari-mutuel horse racing, and it is questionable that we could ever take that function away from the state. Same holds true for the federal government, for that matter."

He said he believes the consortium is achieving the uniformity that Whitfield and others desire.

Thursday's hearing drew criticism yesterday from a Kentucky state senator, who previously worked as a racetrack publicist and for the Breeders' Cup.

Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said the congressional hearing is "objectionable," and said medication regulation should be left to individual states rather than the federal government.

Thayer made the comments at a meeting of the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council, of which he is a member, while sitting next to its chair, Connie Whitfield, the wife of the congressman.

Thayer said the 1978 simulcasting law should be left alone and that states are in the best position to regulate the industry.

Connie Whitfield, who also is a member of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, said the federal law would provide a way for Congress to intervene.

This article is a reprint from courier-journal.com. To view the original story, click here.

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