“I was stunned by the lengths some trainers will go to win races,”
WASHINGTON — The United States Anti-Doping Agency is the last and best hope to return safety and integrity to the troubled sport of thoroughbred racing, members of the industry told Congress at a hearing Thursday.
The hearing, the fourth of its kind since 2008, focused on how the use of performance-enhancing drugs has eroded the sport’s popularity — and its bottom line.
“I was stunned by the lengths some trainers will go to win races,” Jesse M. Overton, a former racing commissioner in Minnesota, told a House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade. “There is no drug or compound that has not been tried in horses, from EPO and anabolic steroids to frog juice and cobra venom. And I promise there are chemists right now working up new, illegal, undetectable substances to give a trainer who wants a performance advantage, especially if he doesn’t have the fastest horse.”
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act would give the antidoping agency, known as Usada, the authority to develop rules for permitted and prohibited substances, and it would also create testing and stiffer penalty programs for horse racing nationally, replacing the patchwork state-by-state system now in place.
“Unless drug testing is conducted uniformly and in state-of-the-art laboratories, unscrupulous horsemen will continue to cheat the system, the horses and the fans,” Overton said.
Usada, a nongovernmental organization, is the official antidoping agency for the United States Olympics team and has worked with Major League Baseball and other professional leagues to eliminate performance-enhancing drugs. It was a key player in the investigation of Lance Armstrong, who admitted that he had systematically used drugs during his racing career.
Its chief executive, Travis Tygart, compared horse racing now to the Olympic Games of the 1990s, when shoddy drug testing and loose standards cast suspicion over athletes and eroded public confidence in international sports. That crisis led to the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency in 1999 and a commitment from governments around the globe to follow a uniform standard.
“Make no mistake, the win-at-all-costs culture is alive and well and will flourish in every sport including horse racing, if we do not take decisive action to stop the take-no-prisoners competition from running wild,” Tygart said.
Representative Joe Pitts, Republican of Pennsylvania, who sponsored the bill with Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, cited recent poll numbers by the Jockey Club that showed how far public confidence had fallen in the sport even among its biggest bettors. Nearly four in five bettors — 79 percent — factored in the possibility of illegal drug use when handicapping races at certain tracks or in certain states. The money wagered in North America has fallen precipitously over the last seven years, to about $11 billion this year from nearly $15.5 billion in 2007.
Phil Hanrahan, chief executive of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, insisted horse racing is a clean sport. He pointed to the relatively few positive tests that are found from state to state.
Hanrahan said that the proposed bill “attempts to address a problem that does not exist,” and that Usada had “neither the experience nor the resources” to regulate the industry.
Dr. Lawrence Soma of the University of Pennsylvania testing laboratory conceded that he and his colleagues had difficulty identifying protein-based drugs and peptides and did not have the money to develop new tests to stay ahead of rogue trainers and veterinarians.
“There still are a number of drugs that are problematic,” Soma said. “I’m sure there are many more coming along.”
Pitts also asked Hanrahan about a report in The New York Times that showed that a horse named Coronado Heights received 17 injections the week before he broke down and was euthanized at Aqueduct in 2012. The horse had been found to have a degenerative joint disease and was trained by Todd Pletcher, a Kentucky Derby winner who is currently the nation’s leading trainer.
“I’m not a veterinarian,” Hanrahan replied.
The report was part of a Times investigation that identified the nation’s most dangerous racetracks, and showed how a pervasive drug culture among veterinarians and trainers put horses and riders at risk. The investigation found that 24 horses a week die at America’s tracks, a rate greater than in countries where drug use is severely restricted.
Dr. Sheila Lyons, an equine veterinarian, said in her testimony that the injections were motivated by a desire for the horse to keep racing, rather than a concern for its health. “There was nothing therapeutic about the drugs in that horse,” she said. “They were injury-masking drugs that were stacked.”
Up to a dozen members of Congress attended the hearing, and the bill appeared to have bipartisan support. Several members noted that horse racing remains a significant industry that sustains some 380,000 jobs nationwide.
“Ultimately, drugs and breakdowns are bad for business,” Tygart said.
- Enlisting Usada Seen as Way to Restore Faith in Horse Racing (nytimes.com)
- On Horse Racing: Despite the Evidence, Trainers Deny a Doping Problem (nytimes.com)
- Drugs and bogus training times in racing fraud – US attorney (horsetalk.co.nz)