By Katie Bo Williams – 04/28/16 05:22 PM EDT (Courtesy of The Hill)
The Thoroughbred racing industry is divided over whether Congress should create a national regulatory body to monitor the use of drugs in racehorses competing in races all the way up to the Kentucky Derby.
“I’d be willing to publicly debate anyone who has the nerve to stand up and take the stance that racing is better with drugs,” racehorse owner and celebrity chef Bobby Flay told lawmakers on Thursday.
At issue is both a patchwork of state-by-state regulation across 38 racing jurisdictions in the U.S., and whether the different rules governing what drugs U.S. horses are permitted to compete on are strict enough.
While many owners and breeders of racehorses support the bill, a key industry group that represents trainers opposes the proposed regulatory body on the grounds that it will be counterproductive to valid drug research while ignoring state-level progress towards uniformity.
“The problem will not be solved by federal oversight used to force regulations onto rogue jurisdictions, but rather the industry working together to get the details correct,” said Eric Hamelback, CEO of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
But according to owners and breeders who operate internationally — where the list of allowable drugs is much shorter — the prevalent use of certain drugs in the U.S. has made their horses undesirable in the global marketplace.
The U.S. is home to the largest thoroughbred auction house in the world, in Lexington, Ky., where thousands of horses are sold annually, many for upwards of seven figures. International buyers, from Japan to England to Russia, are considered an important market for many of those horses.
“The American Thoroughbred product is tainted” because of the use of some of these drugs, said Flay, who operates in both the U.S. and Europe. Until a controversial but common drug used to facilitate breathing during exertion is outlawed on the day of a race, he argued, even good-faith horsemen will continue to use the drug in order to stay competitive.
“We’re the only major racing country in world that allows race day medication. We are on an island by ourselves and frankly, we can’t afford to be,” Flay said.
Supporters of the drug, called Lasix, argue that the bill has important therapeutic uses and that other countries train their horses on the drug — they simply don’t use it on race days.
The bill, from Reps. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), would create uniform drug rules, laboratory standards and penalties across the various states that conduct pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing.
Currently, owners and trainers are licensed separately in each state where they race horses and often complain that the rules they follow in one state don’t apply in another, leading to unintended infractions.
The industry has lumbered unevenly for years toward some form of uniform regulation, with limited success — and many players seem to be losing patience.
“We’ve tried for a long time to fuse all these jurisdictions forever and try to have some uniformity. We’re here because we need one big oversight,” Flay said.