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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

As racehorse death toll continues to climb, Congress moves to salvage the 'sport of kings'

By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block

Horses dying at the racetracks with alarming frequency is a sadly familiar scenario of late, but even by that measure the body count over the past week is nothing short of astonishing. Since Friday alone, three horses have been euthanized at Santa Anita Park in California. First, it was a four-year-old gelding, Harliss, who had to be put down after breaking his ankle in a turf race; on Saturday, it was five-year-old Uncontainable, who also broke his ankle during a turf race; and on Sunday, four-year-old Tikkun Olam was injured and later euthanized after colliding with another horse during training.

Photo courtesy of marlenka/

There have now been five deaths at Santa Anita since January 1, bringing the number of deaths there to 42 since the beginning of last year. But that’s not the only track where horses are dying. Four horses have died over the last 10 days at the New Orleans Fair Grounds racetrack, and two horses fell and died on opening day at Harrah’s Louisiana Downs, taking the number of deaths on Louisiana tracks to six so far this year.

This is a grave situation, and a shameful one, and you’d think the industry would be racing to clean up its act and implement safeguards to protect its horses. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. While some reform-minded racetracks and state racing commissions have developed and implemented new safety measures, this patchwork effort only helps horses racing at specific racetracks. Above all, there has not been nearly enough momentum among the biggest stakeholders to recognize and correct problems, like the drug crisis that has contributed to thousands of racehorse deaths over the years.

Instead, what we have seen from some members of the industry is a pattern of drugging animals to enhance performance and mask pain, ignoring problems when they arise, and then resorting to obfuscation and cover-ups to explain horse deaths.

Last year, we wrote about how the California Horse Racing Board, comprised of some in the highest echelons of power in the industry, bent and twisted the rules to allow Justify to run in and win the Triple Crown after he failed a drug test only weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Last week, a report released on the death of Mongolian Groom, a horse who died in November at the Breeders' Cup Classic in Santa Anita, said veterinarians missed opportunities to remove the gelding from the $6 million race because of time constraints or deficiencies in the process used to evaluate horses.

The problem began at least as far back as 1980, when Congress decided to leave it up to states to come up with their own rules on what drugs to allow in horseracing. This led to a confusing patchwork of state laws with no uniform national standard regarding which drugs are permitted, or penalties for doping. That in turn has allowed the widespread use of both legal and illegal drugs to flourish, leading to a multitude of problems, for horses and riders alike. Some drugs allow a horse to push through pain, intensifying an underlying injury, or make it possible to force worn-out horses to compete, resulting in career-ending mishaps and even death.

The bottom line is that we need significant medication reform at every racetrack in every state that sponsors horseracing. This means stopping the use of legal and illegal drugs that are used to enhance the performance of equine athletes or mask their pain, and ending the current scenario within the horseracing industry, where those who promote the sport are allowed to police themselves.

There is now a bill in Congress that would do all of this, the Horseracing Integrity Act H.R.1754/S.1820. The Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Legislative Fund and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association have been working with the Jockey Club, along with dozens of other groups, to press for its passage. The bill, sponsored in the House by Reps. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., and Andy Barr, R-Ky., and in the Senate by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., would ban race day medication and substantially increase out-of-competition testing. It would also grant independent control over rule-making, testing and enforcement oversight regarding drugs and medication to a new authority created by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, an independent entity that oversees testing of athletes at the Olympics and many other sporting events in the United States, and it would create a uniform national standard for drug testing overseen by the new authority.

The HSLF prioritized the bill in its Humane Scorecard push, resulting in huge increases in its bipartisan cosponsor counts. From late September, when we first notified congressional offices that the Horseracing Integrity Act would be scored, the House cosponsor count jumped from 150 to 227 and the Senate count jumped from two to 25. The bill is now moving in Congress with over half the House of Representatives and a quarter of the Senate cosponsoring it. Next week we will be on the Hill, speaking out in its favor at a hearing of the Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce. You too can help by contacting your lawmakers in Congress and asking them to cosponsor the Horseracing Integrity Act if they haven’t yet and press for its swift enactment. Horseracing is in a crisis, beset with a reputation problem and dwindling spectatorship, and with fatalities mounting, there is no time to lose.

Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

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