LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Outrage over the deaths of 36 horses at Santa Anita Park in Southern California since December has given a boost to federal legislation aimed at stopping drug abuse in the sport.
But the bipartisan bill, which would end the use of drugs on race day and establish a national anti-doping authority, faces a formidable foe in Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.
The Horseracing Integrity Act has the support of much of the industry as well as leading animal welfare groups but the historic race track has been steadfast in its opposition.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell represents Kentucky, which could make getting the bill across the finish line a challenge. A spokesperson for McConnell said he has not yet stated his position on the legislation.
Despite the potential hurdles in the Senate, the bill’s backers remain optimistic.
“The legislative process starts in the House and we are making a lot of progress there,” Jim Gagliano, president of The Jockey Club, told Reuters.
“We are galloping right now and I expect that we’ll have a hearing and a vote,” he said of the bill, which is up to 191 co-sponsors in the House, 27 shy of a majority in that chamber.
For the first time, a companion bill has been introduced in the Senate, which also has bipartisan support.
However, Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said in a statement to Reuters that the company had “serious concerns” about the bill and did not think federal legislation was “practical, reasonable, or imminent.
“We have expressed those concerns to industry constituents and the bill’s sponsor but they were never addressed,” he said.
Despite being synonymous with horse racing in the United States, Churchill Downs is not really a horse racing company, said Shawn Smeallie, executive director of the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, which is lobbying for the bill.
“They are more of a casino and gambling company and anything that may remotely smell of additional costs or regulation, they are not interested in,” he said.
The bill would empower the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which also oversees the testing of U.S. track and field athletes, and assemble a panel of independent equine experts to develop a banned drug list.
Administration of the new system would be funded by the industry.
North American horse racing is fragmented, with no one body or commissioner overseeing the sport as a whole.
As a result, 38 states have implemented their own laws governing the use of drugs, creating a patchwork of rules that is failing to protect its equine athletes, Smeallie said.
While it is unclear what has caused the spike in deaths at Santa Anita — the reasons likely range from a track surface that absorbed an unusually high amount of rain this winter to existing unknown injuries — the misuse of drugs has been a factor, Smeallie said.
Horses in North America are injured or die at a rate 2.5 to five times higher than the rest of the world, which has stricter drug laws, he said.
The most widely used and controversial drug is Lasix, which is designed to treat bleeding in the lungs, which can occur in some horses after intense exercise.
But the drug is widely used in North America before races because the diuretic helps horses quickly shed pounds.
“It’s a performance enhancer,” said Smeallie.
“The fact is that only 5% of horses need Lasix to run and 95% of them take it. The reason is that you don’t want to run against a horse that’s taking Lasix because they have a 30 pound weight advantage.
“I think it’s over used in North America, which is the only place that uses it on race day. Everywhere else in the world these horses are running and running fine without Lasix.
“Getting our arms around the medication issue in racing will go a very long way toward preventing a lot of these breakdowns,” Smeallie said.
The bill would empower the anti-doping authority to develop a banned drug list but it would also end the use of drugs on the day of races, which would curtail the use of Lasix.
Gagliano said the push for federal legislation and new reform measures adopted by individual tracks will continue apace after Santa Anita hosts the Breeders’ Cup championships on Friday and Saturday.
“Obviously we’re all focused on the Breeders’ Cup but our efforts won’t end on Saturday night,” he said.
“There has got to be constant improvement and we have to see the incidents of fatalities steadily falling.”
Editing by Ken Ferris