Congressman Joe Pitts (R-Pa) has been arguing for years that horseracing has been corrupted by numerous abuses, most prominently the illegal use of drugs on horses. With New Mexico’s Democratic Senator Tom Udall, Pitts introduced legislation that would require the United States Federal Trade Commission to address the corrosive influence of drugs in horseracing. After that legislative parry failed to gain traction, Pitts and Udall tried another approach in 2013. They proposed legislation, called the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, that would enlist the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to police the sport. That effort failed, too.
Last month, the two reformers tried another approach—one that would radically change the dynamics of horseracing by repealing the 1978 Interstate Horseracing Act. The 1978 law made off-track and “online” betting on pari-mutuel races legal and allowed for simulcasting of races.
In 1978 the world still relied on landlines for telephone service. That was the “online” imagined in the legislation. The first hand-held phone that did not require power from a car battery was introduced in 1973. Remember Betamax? Right. Nobody else does, either. But Betamax was the sensational new technology that vastly expanded the menu of entertainment available on televisions. The Apple II desktop computer was introduced in 1977, but commercial internet service providers didn’t arrive on the scene until the 1990s. Given the profound changes in technology since the Interstate Horseracing Act was passed in 1978, it’s apparent that the law should be updated.
House Efforts to Curb Drugs
But Pitts and Udall believe that repeal is the only way to force horseracing to reform itself. Pitts has not given up the idea of bringing the USADA onto racetracks. He’s convinced that the drugs result in catastrophic injuries to horses and to jockeys. He again proposed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act—the bill that died in committee in 2014--in the House, and has received some bipartisan support. “That is why I joined with my friends, Representatives Jan Schakowsky (D-Il) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA) to reintroduce reform legislation, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which would give USADA the authority it needs to put an end to horse-doping on race day,” Pitts explained via email. “Our bill would condition the privilege of off-track betting on passing USADA inspections.”
The Interstate Horseracing Act created a robust stream of revenue for the industry, and today most of horseracing’s revenue comes from off-track betting. As the rocker Cyndi Lauper so famously explained the obvious, “money changes everything.” Pitts believes that the billions of dollars that flow across the internet and through off track betting venues create a lawless, avaricious climate in which no strategy is out of bounds. “Our legislation is about hitting the pause button on the massive stream of money that is funding the industry. Over 90 per cent of the industry’s revenue is in off-track betting, and is creating a powerful incentive to win at all costs—even by using substances on race day.”
Drugging Horses Will Destroy the Sport
After Pitts and Udall listened to experts and stakeholders in Kennett Square, PA in 2012, they were convinced that the drugging of horses at America’s racetracks was as detrimental to horseracing as the doping scandals in bike racing had been. “The need for reform isn’t new,” Pitts explained. “The horseracing industry has promised for decades that it would implement uniform standards, but only a few states have done so.” Pennsylvania is among the states that adopted uniform standards in 2013. Those standards limit the medications which veterinarians are permitted to use on racehorses, and require labs which test for drugs to be accredited. “Each week some two dozen horses die on racetracks in the United States,” Pitts said, “many of them having been forced to run while sick and drugged.”
Even with that reform, however, problems persist. Last year three veterinarians at Penn National Racetrack were arrested and charged with falsifying medication reports on horses. That scandal was the latest in a string of legal problems, which resulted in the arrests of trainers and a clocker.
Pitts says that America’s racetrack abuses are a national shame. “Other countries look on this situation with horror and disbelief. Congress has not intervened for 30 years, and conditions for horses and jockeys have not improved. It is apparent by now that the problem of cruelty to horses and endangering the safety of jockeys will not go away on its own.”
He sees the anti-doping legislation he’s proposing in the House as a complement to his and Senator Udall’s proposal to repeal the Interstate Horseracing Act. “If the horseracing industry will not put a stop to race-day horse doping, then Congress ought to revoke the privilege of interstate betting over the wire.”
For the Love of Horseracing He and Udall have tried several times to inspire their colleagues in Washington to join them in their quest to reform horseracing, but they remain committed. “I wish that this bill were unnecessary, and that the industry were more responsible with their interstate wire privileges,” Pitts said. “Congress granted them this privilege in the 1970s—a privilege Congress has not granted to any other sport—with the understanding that the industry would put in place sound, uniform standards and practices. That understanding has proven wrong, decade after decade, while thousands of horses are killed or injured.” Pitts is optimistic about the possibility of real reform. “It is clear that there is support for some kind of reform. There are a number of different proposals being considered in Congress right now, including the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. When there is a bicameral, bipartisan, multiregional effort like this, it shows that it is time for change.”
Two remarkable horses, Affirmed and American Pharoah, bookend the history of the Interstate Horseracing Act that Pitts and Udall want to repeal. Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, the year the act was passed, and American Pharoah won last month. The extraordinary achievements of those two horses represent the best ideals of the sport. And the efforts of Pitts and Udall to reform horseracing might get a boost from the celebrity of the newest Triple Crown winner. “Senator Udall and I love horseracing.” Pitts said. “We just think that it should be about the athleticism of horses, not a competition between chemists.”