Proposed legislation would impose ‘zero tolerance’ on drugs

by | 05.04.2011 | 3:48pm

No one in the Thoroughbred racing industry can say Congressman Ed Whitfield didn't warn them. Whitfield, a nine-term Republican representing Kentucky's First Congressional district, has filed legislation entitled the “Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act of 2011” that, as currently proposed, would eliminate the use of any currently permitted therapeutic or illegal, performance-enhancing drugs for racehorses, in addition to imposing stiff penalties for violators, and would impose standards for testing laboratories and guidelines for racing associations and racing commissions. The Federal Trade Commission would be the federal regulatory agency with oversight, if the bill becomes law.

The bill, as written, would not allow even trace amounts of any medication in a racehorse on the day of a race. That would make U.S. medication regulations the most stringent of any racing nation, most of which have threshold testing levels for specific therapeutic drugs.

Another Kentucky Congressman, Democrat Ben Chandler, was among the co-sponsors of the House bill. A companion bill in the Senate was introduced by Democrat Tom Udall of New Mexico.


 Click here for the text of the House bill.

Whitfield has been calling for federal regulation of racing medication rules since at least 2008, when a Congressional hearing looked into various issues, including the use of anabolic steroids (since banned by state regulators) in racehorses, including that year's Kentucky Derby winner, Big Brown, and the death of Eight Belles, who finished second in the Derby behind Big Brown. 


Shortly after those June 2008 hearings, Whitfield wrote a guest commentary in the Paulick Report, citing many of the same reasons for federal regulations he mentioned today in a teleconference with reporters to discuss the proposed legislation. (Click here for the 2008 guest commentary.)

Whitfield said he has concerns, based on the beliefs of “various owners and breeders” that drug use has become “rampant” in the U.S. and is now a safety issue for horses and riders. Secondly, he said, the individuals he has spoken with are concerned that permissive medication regulations have weakened the Thoroughbred breed. Whitfield said he believes the U.S. is out of step with other racing countries on medication policies, and that there is no single authority in the U.S. empowered to make changes, including the Association of Racing Commissioners International or the The Jockey Club. Finally, Whitfield said, there appears to be no stigma attached to trainers who are penalized for medication violations and then are named “outstanding trainers of the year.”




The decision to propose the legislation was made “for all of those reasons and the impact on the industry,” Whitfield said, “not to mention the consumer protection part – the betting public really do not know what horse does or does not have in it.”

The House committee on Energy and Commerce, of which Whitfield is a member, would have jurisdiction, through a subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Trade, Whitfield said. He is uncertain when any hearings would take place, but said any affected parties, including veterinarians and horsemen, would have opportunities to testify on whether threshold levels of specific medications should be established, as other countries have done.

“We understand that this is a complex issue,” said Whitfield. “The purpose of the hearings would be to address these kinds of issues. The overall objective is to get away from rampant drugs being used today. Everyone understands horses like professional athletes are injured, have pains, and sometime you have to do things to assist them. Sometimes there are residual levels left on race day.

“The purpose of the legislation is to get rid of drugs on race day. Right now there is not any one entity that has the authority to do that.”

Whitfield said some consideration was given to using the legislation to create a federal authority to oversee racing. “We did consider that,” he said, “but trying to establish some new entity I don't really think is realistic right now (given the challenges of the federal deficit). The more we thought about it, we decided we've got the Federal Trade Commission.”

Industry reaction was mixed.  A letter of support was distributed by Arthur B. Hancock and wife Staci of Stone Farm in Kentucky, and signed by George Strawbridge of Augustin Stables and Lael Stables' Roy and Gretchen Jackson.

Two horsemen's groups, the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, already have come out in opposition to an RCI proposed phase out over the next five years for the race day use of anti-bleeder medication furosemide.

The NHBPA declined comment on the proposed legislation, but THA chairman Alan Foreman said, “The THA will vigorously oppose the Whitfield-Udall legislation. We categorically reject the characterization of our industry and the assault on the integrity of the tens of thousands of people who work in racing and whose primary responsibility is the welfare of the horse. This legislation, if enacted, would cripple our industry without reason. Federal intervention in our sport is neither necessary nor warranted.  We intend to vigorously defend our sport, it's integrity, our system of deterrence and our medication rules and policies.”

James Gagliano, president and CEO of The Jockey Club, said: “We respectfully decline comment on the legislation in question until we have had a chance to review it.
 
“The Jockey Club does share the belief that performance-enhancing medication has no place in Thoroughbred racing. As we said in our April 28 statement, The Jockey Club stands convinced that the elimination of race-day medication is essential to achieving optimal stewardship of the horse, the sport, the public perception and confidence, and the business of Thoroughbred racing.
 
“Gambling in the U.S. has long been regulated under the province of the states and, in point of fact, racing is the most regulated of sports. Through this structure, we have made great progress in many areas over the last few years in reforming our medication policies. There is more to be done in this regard, in particular revisiting race-day medication policies, and we are encouraged by recent calls in support of this position – including from the association of state regulators themselves. We believe this industry has the wherewithal to begin a phase-in of these policies within a year.
 
“We further acknowledge, however, it is the federal government that regulates interstate activities in our country. And, as a $40 billion business employing about 400,000 individuals across many states, it is undeniable that we are an interstate activity.
 
“We look forward to speaking to anyone interested in promoting medication reform.”

Ed Martin, president of RCI, said:  “There are portions of this initiative that parallel proposals that have been made by RCI Chairman Willie Koester, particularly with regard to race day administration of furosemide.   The sponsors appear to propose a replication of the Canadian system where the federal government sets and enforces medication policy and the provincial racing commissions are responsible for licensure of individuals and tracks, race day assignment, investigations, and adjudication.   RCI believes that the creation of a National Racing Commission in the U.S. through the interstate compact mechanism is a preferable alternative so as to avoid redundancy, confusion, and additional costs that would undoubtedly be associated with the creation of another layer of regulation.”

Said Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which has not taken a position on the RCI proposal: “We strongly disagree with the overall characterization of our sport by the authors of the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act. Horseracing continues to outpace other sports in its drug and medication policies. The winner of every race is subject to drug testing at every track, every day in the United States. Non-winning horses are also subject to random drug testing. The fact is that less than one half of one percent of the more than 100,000 tests resulted in a positive for illegal drugs or overages of therapeutic medications in 2010. Our industry is committed to catching and punishing cheaters.
 
“The horse industry, together with capable and committed state regulatory authorities, equine veterinarians and others, is now engaged in a far reaching dialogue over legal, therapeutic, race-day medications. Preserving the welfare of our athletes and the integrity of our competition will always be our foremost goals.”

Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, which represents the horse industry in Washington, D.C., said: “The industry is back on the federal radar screen with the introduction of this bill.  This legislation must be taken seriously.  We should be concerned about federal involvement in our industry and the mischief that can flow from it.  The last thing we want is a federal agency dictating how we conduct our business, particularly on such a complicated issue.  The industry has made great strides in the last five years in safety and welfare and must continue to do so.”

Said Reynolds Bell, chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association:  “The public perception of Thoroughbred racing and the health of our equine athletes are of utmost concern to TOBA.  However, due to public demand and the desire to standardize worldwide polices, it is now time for our sport to openly and honestly deal with the use of therapeutic race-day medication.  TOBA supports the elimination of race-day medication.  Although horseracing in this country is the most regulated sport with the most extensive drug testing program and medication policies, our customers are telling us to address this issue.   

“Progress has been made in reforming our medication policies in recent years to improve the integrity of the sport.  TOBA has supported these reforms not only through the endorsement of our organization, but also by the actions of the the American Graded Stakes Committee.  A number of leading industry stakeholders have commenced efforts to address the policy and scientific issues around race-day medication.  We believe this effort should be given the opportunity to demonstrate once again our sport's commitment to the goals of increased integrity, safety and consumer confidence. However, if we are unable to accomplish this objective in a short and defined period of time, perhaps a bill from the federal government is the step that should be considered for the improvement and future of our sport.”

Amercan Associated of Equine Practitioners president Williams Moyers issued the following statement: “As doctors of veterinary medicine, our primary focus when evaluating the proposed Interstate Horse Racing Improvement Act is its effect on the health and safety of the racehorse. The American Association of Equine Practitioners supports the responsible use and regulation of valid therapeutic medications in horse racing. We also support the concept of a national uniform medication policy.

“Racehorses currently compete in a heavily regulated environment with very clear distinctions between illegal drugs and valid medications that provide therapeutic benefit. The very broad language of the bill could eliminate, as written, beneficial treatment of active equine athletes at any time – not just on the day of competition. We urge Congress to work with the horse racing industry to learn more about the health care implications of this bill as it is written and stand ready to assist in that process.”

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