Congressional hearing on horse racing: Will it have an impact?

by | 04.30.2012 | 11:08am
Gretchen Jackson at a Congressional hearing

Congressmen Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania and Ed Whitfield of Kentucky got exactly what they must have wanted out of Monday's hearing of the Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health, titled  “A Review of Efforts to Protect Jockeys and Horses in Horseracing.”

The fix was in.

The 2 1/2-hour hearing, conducted in Pitts' home district in Kennett Square, Pa., rounded up a group of witnesses, some with better credibility than others, to tell members of Congress that the horse racing industry has serious problems:  a lack of national leadership, regulations and enforcement that are different from one state to another, and a culture of racing horses on a variety of drugs is killing the sport, damaging the Thoroughbred breed, and forcing honest owners and trainers to cross over to the dark side, giving drugs to horses against their best judgment so they can compete on a level playing field.

Pitts and Whitfield are co-sponsors of a bill, the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act of 2011, which would ban all drugs in a horse's system on the day it races, require drug testing labs to meet international standards for accreditation, and impose strict penalties for rule violators.

We won't rehash the testimony (you can see the written statements of the witnesses here), but let's just say unsubstantiated claims and unproven statistics were made that Pitts, Whitfield and two non-committee members of Congress took as gospel.

It got to the point that Rep. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania asked two trainers testifying, Kenny McPeek and Glenn Thompson, “How do you compete if you're not doing the doping?”

Thompson, son of trainer Willard Thompson, presumably was called as a witness because of the book he wrote, “The Tradition of Cheating at the Sport of Kings,” and not for the 153 wins he's compiled as a trainer over the last 32 years. Thompson said not a single trainer or veterinarian has disagreed with one of the claims in the book, that 70-85% of horses are illegally drugged when they run. But McPeek, the only witness that said he didn't support the complete ban on medication (preferring it be applied only to graded stakes), refuted the contention by Thompson and some of the Congressmen: “I'm not convinced there's a huge issue with doping.”

McPeek's comment brought a testy rebuke from Meehan, who cited two recent articles in the New York Times on racing fatalities and doping of horses.

That was one of the only times there was disagreement between the members of Congress and a witness, almost all of whom were on-board in support of the federal legislation.

The bill has to pass this year or it's dead, and that seems a longshot at best. It's easier to kill a bill than to pass one, and racing organizations like the National Thoroughbred Racing Association with its strong lobbying effort and The Jockey Club and its members with some friends in high places are expected to fight it.

Retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens and Whitfield both said they wished The Jockey Club and other industry organizations would try to help pass the legislation rather than fight it. But that doesn't seem likely, either, at least not with the bill's current language.

Dr. Greg Ferraro, a former racetrack vet who now is a director at the veterinary school at the University of California-Davis, offered one of the most refreshing comments when he admitted that he was wrong when he testified decades ago in front of racing commissions, urging them to relax their medication rules and permit the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like phenylbutazone to treat sore horses.

Things have gotten much worse since those drugs were allowed, Ferarro said. “It has not served the industry well. It has not served the horses well.” Ferraro went a step further saying the veterinary profession has not served the horses very well, either. “We haven't done well by the breed,” he said.

One very short question from a member of Congress got the day's only laugh when Strawbridge was asked “who's in charge” of horse racing? Audience members familiar with the industry knew the answer Strawbridge was going to give: “no one.”

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