Congressional Hearing on Race Day Drugs Held in Unionville, PA
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Congressional Hearing on Race Day Drugs Held in Unionville, PA
June 2012 - Stephanie Shertzer Lawson

The witnesses at a US House of Representatives subcommittee hearing held in Unionville, Chester County, PA on April 30 were in total agreement – race day drugs are destroying American horseracing. The question was, is the federal government the right agency to fix it?

The hearing was called by Representative Joseph Pitts (R-Chester and Lancaster, PA) Chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the Committee on Energy and Commerce.  In his opening statement, Pitts recalled that the same committee had addressed the drug issue in 2008, and had received promises from industry groups and state racing commissions that reform was needed and would be forthcoming. The New York Times series on racing, which began in late March, brought the issue to the foreground again, showing  that drug use has continued unabated and suggesting that it was responsible for the increase in breakdowns.

“We are here today, in the heart of Thoroughbred horse country in Pennsylvania, to hear firsthand from Thoroughbred owners, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians and lab experts on whether the previously promised reforms by industry have had any desired effect, and discuss the need for a national set of uniform rules to prohibit the use of performance enhancing drugs and create consequential penalties for violations,” Pitts said in his opening statement.

State and industry groups have failed to develop rules consistent throughout the 38 racing jurisdictions, and there is no single entity which can impose them.  Pitts and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) co-sponsored HR-1733, the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act of 2011, an update to the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978, which allowed simulcasting rights for racetracks. The bill would ban all drugs on race day, with strict penalties for violators, and require drug testing labs to meet international standards.

Gary Stevens
Retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, one of four witnesses on the first of two panels, stated that outlawing race day medications would be accepted by the racing community, as the ban on anabolic steroids was after an initial outcry, and would solve many problems. 

“I would still be riding today and a lot of good horses would still be running today, if medications weren’t used in the way they are. There are no national set standards for anything in our sport. There needs to be a national governing body to regulate these things and create a national standard with rules and consequences that are enforced. It is my strong belief that the use of race day medications in the sport of horse racing has to be banned or our sport will not survive another decade,” Stevens said. “Unfortunately if changes are not made my grandchildren will not know this sport.”

Kentucky breeder Arthur Hancock, whose family has been breeding thoroughbreds since the 1870’s, looked back to when racing was America’s number one spectator sport and racehorses averaged 45 lifetime starts compared with thirteen today. “There’s been an increase in unsoundness. Track surfaces are safer but the rate of breakdowns and jockey injuries has increased. The difference parallels the use of Lasix,” he said. “Only about five percent of horses are bleeders, but nearly every horse races on it. It is a powerful diuretic that lets them lose 25-30 pounds, and one pound at a mile is a length. Most run on bute, Ketofin or Banamine as well.”

Hancock cited a poll by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association which showed 75 percent of owners don’t want to use drugs, and 75 percent of the population thinks of racing as a sport in which drug use is rampant. But most trainers feel compelled to use them in order to remain competitive. “The Kentucky Racing Commission tried to do away with race day drugs then rescinded the ban because they were afraid of losing more horses,” Hancock said.

Gretchen Jackson, who recounted the tragedy of watching Barbaro’s breakdown, testified that there are more non-detectible drugs available than the banned drugs the few certified testing labs can identify. Owner George Strawbridge read from the New York Times article on drugs in horseracing and asked, “What has been the reaction of the horse world to this article? It has either been ignored or denied. There has been intimidation and pressure put on vets, trainers and even scientists not to testify at this hearing. There is significant opposition to change and reform throughout the horse industry. The preference is to keep the status quo with its addiction to drugs that produce danger to jockeys and pain and death to horses.

“If the federal government doesn’t affect change, change will not occur as our present organizations are either ineffective or unwilling to make the change.”

Ban Considered in 1980’s
Congress considered banning drugs in horseracing in the 1980s, but left the decision to the individual states. However, there are 38 separate state racing commissions, with 38 different sets of rules. As a result, no uniform rules exist to prohibit the use of performance enhancing drugs and to penalize doping violations. If one state tries to enforce a zero-tolerance policy, trainers can easily ship their horses elsewhere. States face stiff competition for the horse business and may be willing to sacrifice oversight for revenue, which leads trainers to continually violate medication rules.

Trainer Kenny McPeak endorsed the elimination of race day medication in graded stakes races in the short run, to be followed by formulation of a National Uniform Medication Policy that benefits the horses. 

Penn National track veterinarian Kathryn Papp said that it is not uncommon for her to see a practitioner enter a stall in a private barn on race day, unquestioned, with three to ten syringes of medication. “Some trainers have medicine cabinets that rival the inventory in my vet truck. I know racetrack vets that own and market their own pharmacies for extra income. Prerace.com is a popular Canadian website that trainers order products from, which come with guarantees not to test on race day.”

Gregory Ferraro, Director of the Center for Equine Health at the University of California Davis, testified by videoconference. He recalled that he supported the use of Lasix on race day and has since come to regret that decision. “We thought that if we could use NSAIDS we wouldn’t have to inject as many joints. We thought we would use Lasix until there was a better way to treat bleeders. But we’re not looking for a better solution. It slowed us down in solving the problem. The rest of the racing world has done much better. Their stallions are better, their horses are better – we’ve done a disservice to the breed.

“Meanwhile, there is no one training today who ran without drugs, so they think they need them.  We made a mistake 40 years ago that took us in the wrong direction.”

New Jersey trainer Glenn Thompson questioned whether the 38 state racing commissions could meet to determine universal rules. “The Jockey Club can’t do it,” he said.  Failing that, “I hope the federal government steps in.”

One legislator remarked that if the drug issue can be dealt with without involving Congress, by creating a structure within the industry, horseracing would be much better off. Congress moves slowly, and there can be unintended consequences. Ferarro replied that he does not see it coming. “Similar hearings were held two years ago.  The industry promised to do something about it, and didn’t. If changes are made state by state, horses can move. We need a national rule that is enforced at all tracks at the same time.”

Kentucky Takes Action, Sort Of
The Equine Drug Research Council, which advises the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, on May 16 discussed a proposal to ban furosemide, marketed as Lasix or Salix, in graded or listed stakes races, including, beginning in 2014, the Kentucky Derby. A more sweeping proposed ban on all race day use of furosemide failed on a 7-7 vote in a tense commission meeting last month, the Associated Press reported. The racing commission was expected to discuss, but not vote on, the proposal later the same day.

As proposed, the new rules would begin on Jan. 1, 2013, when the ban would apply to 2-year-olds racing in any graded or stakes races in Kentucky. The prohibition would extend to 2- and 3-year-old horses competing in those races in 2014. In 2015, the ban would apply to any horse entered to race in graded or listed stakes races in Kentucky. Violations of the race-day drug ban would result in the horse being disqualified and forfeiture of their purse money.

Violating trainers or veterinarians would face license suspensions and fines growing in severity for repeat infractions within a year's time.

If enacted, Kentucky would be the first state to restrict the use of Lasix on race days.