Will they or won't they?
That's the big question I have about a group of U.S. Congressmen who have nothing else to do (health care, foreclosure crisis, soaring gas prices, Iraq war?) but put the horse racing industry in the crosshairs during a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday entitled “Breeding Drugs and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Horseracing and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred.”
The Paulick Report will attend the hearing and “live blog” the event, which begins at 10 a.m. EDT.
Will the U.S. House of Representatives' subcommittee on commerce trade and consumer protection recommend federal intervention in the form of national oversight or national horse racing authority of some type? Led by Arizona senator and current presidential candidate John McCain, Congress took on boxing in 1996 and created the Professional Boxing Safety Act when it determined that the individual state commissions regulating the sport were not acting in the best interests of the fighters to protect their safety and financial well being. They amended that act four years later with the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act.
Cleaning up boxing wasn't easy, nor have the federal reforms been wholly effective. Additional hearings on the sport have been held by the same subcommittee that is looking into racing, but there continue to be problems with enforcement of the federal boxing laws.
There is a precedent and a similarity between the two sports. Boxing and horse racing in this country are both regulated by state commissions, many of them with distinct rules and regulations. Both sports can occasionally be brutal, tragic and scandalous. Both boxing and racing have participants who can be exploited and whose health and welfare have been called into question by a sizable percentage of the public.
The federal government does regulate gambling on horse racing with the Wire Act and Interstate Horse Racing Act, but it does not delve into issues of the health, welfare and safety of its human or equine participants — at least not yet.
This same subcommittee of the House's committee on energy and commerce has called in racing participants to testify on previous occasions: first, when the Jockeys' Guild was being run amok by its leaders, and riders had limited catastrophic injury insurance; and second, earlier this year, when the use of anabolic steroids in several sports were questioned.
Based on who is providing testimony on Thursday, you can be assured that racing will come off as a divided industry, and one that is not able to make across-the-board reforms because of the multitude of state regulatory bodies. Another recurring theme you can expect is that the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and its president, Alex Waldrop, cannot speak on behalf of the industry in the same fashion that the commissioners of the National Basketball Association, National Football League and other major league sports do. In fact, according to sources, the NTRA had to fight with the subcommittee's ranking Republican, Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, to even get Waldrop onto the witness list. Apparently, Whitfield and others were not happy with some backtracking Waldrop did after testifying to Congress about medication rules in February when he made comments that a number of NTRA members privately told him later they would not support.
The hearings have been called because Whitfield, more than anyone else in Congress, has been convinced by his wife, Connie (a member of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority), among others, that racing has a drug problem that may take federal intervention to resolve. Whitfield's poster child is Eight Belles, who died a tragic death after running a gallant second in the Kentucky Derby. Eight Belles did not race on steroids and was trained by Larry Jones, someone with a squeaky-clean reputation on medication use.
This showdown at Gucci Gulch will be an interesting display. During the first and more lively panel, horsemen Arthur Hancock, Jess Jackson and Jack Van Berg can be expected to say that the industry is badly in need of reform and isn't doing enough to protect horses and people from “drugs and thugs.” Others, like California Horse Racing Board chairman Richard Shapiro and Jockey Club president Alan Marzelli, will point to changes they are trying to enact. The Jockey Club made a preemptive strike Tuesday by announcing its recommendations to ban steroids and toe grabs on racing plates and regulate whips.
Congressmen will pointedly ask what authority the Jockey Club or the California board has to enact the recommended changes in all racing states. Rick Dutrow, who trained Big Brown with permitted steroids to win the Kentucky Derby and has a long list of medication violations, is scheduled to be the closing act to the first panel and is the wild card in that group. Dutrow might say anything, although he has been coached by a p.r. adviser to defer as many questions as possible to others (and to not call any of the Congressmen “babe,” as he is wont to do with most people).
During the second panel, a number of veterinarians will send House members scrambling for NoDoz pills with statistical analysis of racing injuries and tedious descriptions of new surgical procedures. The two-act play will come to a resounding crescendo if Waldrop is brought in last, allowing Whitfield and others to make him horse racing's whipping boy.
Powerful Thoroughbred people are betting their bottom dollar that no significant action will follow in Congress, and that the industry will be able to hide under the skirts of its longtime ally in Washington, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Depending on what happens in November's election, however, McConnell may not have enough control to derail federal action. Thursday's hearing may be just the tip of the iceberg.
By Ray Paulick
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