Can the federal government make things better when it comes to the regulation of medication policies for horse racing? A better question might be: Can it get any worse?
Plenty of people will answer “yes” to that second question, citing any number of U.S. government agencies that are increasingly under attack for being inefficient, bloated bureaucracies.
The Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act of 2011, introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and in the Senate by Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, no doubt will be the focal point of discussion either during or after Monday's Congressional hearing on horseracing in Kennett Square, Pa. The hearing itself will be a dog and pony show not that dissimilar, I imagine, from other agenda-driven gatherings of Congress, when only one side of an argument is being presented (think about the recent hearing on women's reproductive rights, when a panel of men was invited to speak).
There is another side to this issue, but before we discuss that, let's remember what this specific legislation is designed to do:
— Eliminate from horse racing performance-enhancing drugs (a definition that needs a lot more clarity than it currently has in the language).
— Require drug-testing labs to meet internationally accepted accreditation standards.
— Establish strict nationally uniform penalties for violators.
The bill does not create a new government entity but puts enforcement power in the hands of the existing Federal Trade Commission, a nearly 100-year-old agency.
I wrote earlier this week that the witness list is a stacked deck in favor of federal medication guidelines for horseracing, something I believe would be beneficial to our industry.
It's too bad, however, that people like Foster Northrop, a practicing racetrack veterinarian who serves on the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, and trainer Dale Romans, vice president of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, weren't invited to speak at Monday's hearing.
I don't necessarily agree with what they said during the recent debate on the issue of banning Lasix as a permitted race-day medication, but both men put forth persuasive arguments to Kentucky's racing commission to continue the practice.
Northrop voted against proposed regulations to phase out the use of Lasix, beginning with 2-year-olds of 2013. I suggested he might have had an economic conflict of interest in casting that vote, but I have since learned that race-day Lasix shots account for only about 1% of his practice's annual income. Further, while the racing commission did not pass the Lasix phase-out when the issue deadlocked on a 7-7 vote, it did approve new regulations that will turn daily Lasix shots over to a third-party vet hired by the commission or racing association, probably by the end of this year. In other words, private practitioners in Kentucky will not be giving Lasix to horses once it goes through the public hearing process in Frankfort.
Numerous trainers have told me that vet bills are likely to go up, not down, if race day use of Lasix is banned. I have no way of knowing whether or not that is true.
One thing I want to make clear about Northrop: His vote did not hinge on whether or not continued use of Lasix on race day will be good for his business.
Northrop believes Lasix is the best way to currently treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. If it is phased out, however, he firmly believes it should be done on a national basis.
Does that mean Northrop would support the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act of 2011? I don't know. Too bad he doesn't have a chance to testify on that issue.
Romans spoke on behalf of the status quo (keeping Lasix as a permitted medication on race-day), but not because he is a “pro-drug” trainer. Romans, like Northrop and many other veterinarians and trainers, is convinced that Lasix is a therapeutic medication that treats a very common problem better and more economically than anything else currently available.
Furthermore, as a Kentuckian, Romans is very concerned that the state's racing program is going through a period of severe economic hardship because of the non-level playing field created when other states (most recently New York) have benefited from revenue from slot machines or casinos.
The phasing out of Lasix, Romans is convinced, would give horsemen in Kentucky one more reason to pack up their stables and move their operations elsewhere. In other words, the basis of his support for the current medication policies is that he is pro-Kentucky racing, not pro-drugs.
I think his point of view would also have been an important one for members of Congress to hear, whether they agreed with him or not.
But that's not the way this show is going to play out.
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