The U.S. House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection is examining the state of horse racing.
The subcommittee held hearings last week that were chaired by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), in the absence of Chairperson Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL).
Rep. Schakowsky said the "central question" is "Does horse racing need a central governing authority?"
During the hearing Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky) stated, "I do believe horse racing is at a crossroads today….Greed has trumped the health of the horse….the safety …and the strength of the breed…..First of all, our horses race on drug induced ability…..We select winners for breeding…. We are not necessarily selecting the best horse from a soundness standpoint…The question used to be who has the best horse? Today the question is who has the best veterinarian? ….A second problem …is lack of transparency…regarding… deaths…and injuries…[There is no] uniform tracking system in this industry….A third issue is…the lack of a [central authority to make and enforce rules and regulations]".
Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) said the Congressional inquiry was a "wakeup call" for the horse racing industry.
The Congressional inquiry was initiated in the wake of the tragic death of Eight Belles after this year’s Kentucky Derby. After Eight Belles crossed the finish line in 2nd place, her front ankles shattered and she fell to the ground. The horse was euthanized there on the track. It is believed she may have broken one or more of the ankles before the finish line, but the jockey, Gabriel Saez whipped her till she collapsed after crossing the finish line.
Millions of viewers watched this horrific spectacle.
There are 38 states with horse racing, but there is no central governing agency.
States regulate the industry through state racing commissions. These individual commissions operate under the umbrella of the Association of Racing Commissioners International or RCI. The regulations, enforcement, and penalties, however, vary from state to state.
As one witness, Randy Moss of ABC Sports and ESPN, described, "[T]he single biggest dilemma facing this sport is the haphazard and dysfunctional manner in which racing is scheduled and administrated. Unlike other sports, racing has no ‘league office’ with power to make decisions for the long-term best interests of the sport. Instead, racing rules and racing dates are set by politically-appointed racing commissioners in each state, whose decisions are typically motivated by what they perceive to be best for that particular state and often are at odds with the best interests of the sport as a whole."
Though some witnesses cautioned the subcommittee to allow RCI with the help of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC), founded in 2002, as well as the newly constituted Thoroughbred Safety Committee and other groups, continue the trend towards uniform regulation, still others called for a National Racing Commission that can expedite the end of performance enhancing drugs and improvements in safety and health of horses.
Horse racing and gambling
Horse racing is inextricably tied to gambling and the money to be made. Reps. Schakowsky and Whitfield reminded witnesses that Congress has allowed simulcast betting, gambling across state lines, for horse racing under the Interstate Horse Racing Act, 15 U.S.C. §3001 et seq. Revenues from interstate gambling contribute substantially to the $40 billion a year horse racing industry. Moss described, "During the glory days of racing, … horse racing was practically the only outlet for legal gambling…. But now, racing faces intense competition for the gambling and entertainment dollar."
As a result racing seasons are longer and there are many, many more races. As Moss put it, "Unfortunately, too many … tracks are content to grind out a profit through quantity instead of quality, with endless cards of cheap races…. Horsemen are complicit in this, as well, since they typically resist efforts to reduce racing dates, as do state racing commissioners, who are often reluctant to endorse less tax revenue…. Another effect of these extended racing seasons is the pressure it puts on horses…. In a struggle to fill races, racetracks are forced to pressure trainers to run horses more frequently than they might otherwise feel comfortable doing."
Several witnesses called for a ban on use of steroids or other medications.
Subcommittee members lashed out at the reported use of cocaine, pain killers that mask injury, and the plethora of other performance enhancing drugs given to horses.
Jess Stonestreet Jackson of Stonestreet Farm, an owner and breeder, whose horse, Curlin was 2007’s Horse of the Year, called for "zero tolerance" of performance enhancing drugs.
Jack Van Berg, a trainer who has been inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame and known best for training the champion, Alysheba, explained, "This would mean no race day threshold levels of Lasix, Bute, Steroids or any other medication. The present rule permitting the use of steroids and other drugs have compromised the integrity of horse racing and has been a major factor in attendance and for interest falling to an all time low. Steroids do not give these "non-consenting" athletes the time they need to develop and mature. Steroids given to young horses, they cause an unnatural increase in muscle mass and make them heavier than their still maturing bone structure can often tolerate. Let the horse develop on his own and the trainer should be enough of a horseman to know when he has matured."
Richard B. Shapiro, Chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, testified, "Without a doubt, medication has changed our sport and presented us with profound challenges that threaten the game itself…. Over the past 40 years we have traded the time-tested regimen of hay, oats and water for a virtual pharmacopoeia – lasix, butezolidin, Clenbuterol – that has created, as one commentator noted recently, ‘The Chemical Horse.’ After banning it as a performance enhancer, racing later permitted the widespread use of Clenbuterol — a drug originally marketed to fatten cattle – after its proponents claimed nothing else worked as well to clear out a horse’s respiratory system. Despite evidence suggesting that this drug can alter the muscle mass of the heart, it is commonly used in racing. And we have created The Chemical Horse in the name of medicine and therapy when, too often it has been done to gain a competitive advantage."
As Moss explained to the subcommittee, "America became the only racing country in the world to permit raceday use of drugs such as analgesic Butazolidin and diuretic Lasix, which lowers blood pressure and is believed by many to reduce the occurrence and severity of the EIPH (exercise-inducted pulmonary hemorrhaging) that hampers the breathing of some racehorses.
"Included among accepted raceday medications are anabolic steroids such as Winstrol, which is still legal in 28 racing states. Steroids [have] gain[ed] widespread use as an appetite stimulant and to help horses recover more quickly from the effects of exercise and put on muscle mass.
"But well before the highly-publicized breakdowns of Barbaro and Eight Belles, many within the sport were becoming convinced that lax medication rules were having a negative rather than positive effect on American racing."
Moss elaborated, "Despite the initial arguments that medication would enable horses to race more often, the opposite happened. From 1975 to 2007, average starts per horse per year dropped a staggering 62% – from 10.23 to an all-time low of 6.31 last year.
" The vast majority of trainers now complain that their horses have become much more fragile. Potential explanations of this perceived increased fragility are numerous and complicated, including the possibilities that medication has weakened the gene pool….At the same time, raceday use of Lasix has been allowed to spiral out of control – even though the drug is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency because it is allegedly used to mask the presence of more powerful illegal stimulants. Of the 92 horses entered to run [this year] at Belmont Park, 88 were designated to run on Lasix."
Lawrence R. Soma, VMD, University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine, explained, "To date, the United States and Canada appear to be the only countries with horse racing that historically have not sanctioned the presence of anabolic steroids in racehorses during competition, compared to European and Asian counterparts that monitor and issue stiff penalties for the use of anabolic steroids in equine athletes.
"Anabolic steroids were added to the list of controlled substances in 1991 under the Anabolic Steroids Control Act. Certain veterinary products fall under this act and have been reclassified as Schedule III drugs by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The drugs under the DEA Schedule III include boldenone, mibolerone, stanozolol, testosterone, and trenbolone and their esters and isomers. Despite these restrictions, anabolic steroids are easily obtained through internet and other clandestine sources."
Arthur Hancock, president of Stone Farm, a 4th generation owner and breeder of race horses, blamed veterinarians for the drug use.
The Thoroughbred Safety Committee organized by the Jockey Club, a breed registry for North America, has recently recommended adoption of the RMTC model rule for elimination of use of anabolic steroids in the training and racing of thoroughbreds. The Committee is studying recommendations to eliminate all performance enhancing drugs from horse training and racing.
Alexander Waldrop, president and CEO of the American Thoroughbred Racing Association told the committee, "With the full support of our industry, the RCI has called for all racing states to adopt a standardized rule removing anabolic steroids from racing and race training by the end of 2008. Some 28 states are now in the process of removing anabolic steroids from competition, with the remaining 10 expected to follow suit shortly."
The RMTC model rule still allows the use of the anabolic steroids, stanozolol (Winstrol), boldenone (Equipoise), nandrolone (Durabolin), and testosterone below certain threshold levels for the alleged purpose of improving appetite and promoting weight gain to accelerate recovery from injuries and illness.
Witnesses also decried the lack of data about horse injuries and deaths.
Rep. Whitfield pointed out that the industry keeps track of starts, but not numbers of horses that fail to finish or are scratched or pulled because of injuries or deaths and in many instances, euthanasias.
There is a move to implement a national injury reporting system. Mary Scollay, a veterinarian, has created a uniform national injury reporting system for fatalities, but not many organizations participate.
Jackson told the subcommittee about "the absence of transparency about the frequency and cause of racing related injuries as well as the lack of consistent access to medical records".
He continued, "The larger problem is that obtaining accurate medical records for horses is extremely difficult. Most jurisdictions do not adequately regulate medical record keeping for horses and in some states (including California) medical records belong to the person who paid the veterinarian and are not available to the new buyer/owner. Worse, an uninformed buyer may race a horse with an increased risk of injury or death. …[T]here…[should]… be a repository of accurate horse medical records and ownership… available to the industry and all its prospective owners and breeders of the horses during both sale and racing. Through ownership records the physical and medical history of equine can be verified. True ownership records also would help prevent fraud occurring at auctions and private sales where wrongdoers can falsify bids and documents of a horse’s prior sale and medical histories. It is important at sale to provide a potential purchaser with an accurate picture of the horse and to disclose potential health problems."
Injuries and Other Health Concerns
Dr. Soma testified, "Funding for research in horse health and welfare is limited to non-existent and yet the horse carries the burden and the responsibility of keeping us in the business of racing. The total annual economic impact of the horses and horse racing in many states is large, yet the research of the health issues of one player upon which the weight of the industry rests is generally neglected.
"An area of greatest concern … are muscle and skeletal injuries and respiratory and airway diseases….Conditions that result in …death in horse are laminitis, gastro-intestinal emergencies, and catastrophic track injuries. Other areas of concern for maintaining the health and well-being of the horse are lack of good pain management in injured horses and the growing concern of antibiotic-resistant infections, as well as equine nutrition, reproduction, growth, and nutrient management. Maintaining the strength of the gene pool requires investigations into improvement of the longevity of breeding female and male horses and research into foal losses and sustaining pregnancy to term."
An AP survey of thoroughbred racetracks in 29 of the racing states revealed more than three horse deaths a day last year and 5,000 since 2003. The number is low, of course, not only because it doesn’t include several states, but also Arkansas, Michigan, and Nebraska horse racing organizations don’t track fatalities at all and only one of Florida’s tracks responded to the survey.
Injuries and fatalities in racing horses are clearly on the rise.
Susan M. Stover, DVM, PhD, Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, Professor, JD Wheat Veterinary Orthopedic Research Laboratory, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, testified, "Musculoskeletal injuries are the greatest cause of racehorse death and attrition."
She added, "From 1990 to 2006, an increasing trend was observed for injury rates. The proportion of Thoroughbred horses with a fatal musculoskeletal injury during racing and training has risen from approximately 3 horses to 5 horses per 1000 Thoroughbred race starts. The proportion of Thoroughbred racehorses with a fatal musculoskeletal injury has risen from 17 horses to 24 horses per 1000 Thoroughbred horses that started a race. Musculoskeletal injuries resulted in 19-33% of racehorses leaving training within a 3 month or less period in the United States."
Dr. Stover explained "many catastrophic, fatal musculoskeletal injuries" result from pre-existing, less severe injuries that occur from "repetitive, overuse". In other words, horses continue to train and race despite injuries or damage which may be untreated or does not heal sufficiently. The result is further injury and damage, many times catastrophic or fatal.
Witnesses called for a return to racing surfaces with "a good sandy loam and maintained for the soft cushion". As Jack Van Berg explained, "The safety of the horse should be the priority and not how fast the track is. On big days, most race tracks see how fast they can get the track. The surface should be maintained at the same depth at all times."
Dr. Soma added, "Well ventilated barns are essential in reducing dust in the environment that horses are exposed to on a daily basis, and reducing the transfer of communicable diseases when outbreaks occur. Dusty and poorly ventilated barn conditions contribute to pharyngitis, bronchitis and other respiratory disorders that can sideline a horse from competition."
The Thoroughbred Safety Committee has recommended a ban on front toe grabs and other traction devices. These are devices on horses’ shoes that are designed to grab or stick and provide more traction, but they have caused injuries. The Committee is also looking at regulation of the use of riding crops as well as track surfaces. A comprehensive report on proposed changes is expected out in August.
Breeding for speed
Shapiro conceded "the breed appears to be weakening", citing statistics showing "horses raced on average 6.3 times in 2007, down from a peak in 1960 of 11.3 times". Shapiro told the subcommittee, "For the sake of speed, and for having the fastest horse on the first Saturday in May, fewer horses are bred for durability, longevity and stamina. We push two year-olds onto the track before many can handle the rigors of racing. The game has become more ˜horse breeding’ than ˜horse racing’". Moss concurred that "commercial breeding practices driven by the marketplace have shifted too much toward brilliance rather than durability", contributing to the fragility of today’s thoroughbreds.
Jackson told the subcommittee, "The state of the breed is not what it used to be. To put it in simple terms, the industry focuses excessively on breeding horses for early, brilliant speed at relatively short distances. Today, too many breeders end up producing heavily conformed upper body muscled horses with relatively fragile legs (Barbaro) and feet (Big Brown). The current structure of the graded stakes races in the United States encourages breeding this type of horse, and indeed practically demands it. We can improve the breed by mandating transparency in medical histories, revising the racing calendar and understanding track surfaces’ effect on equine health."
After the Racing
Allie Conrad, Executive Director for CANTER Mid Atlantic, one of many Non-Profit racehorse re-homing agencies in this country, testified, "[W]e are here to talk about the dark side, the people who do not care, the people ruining what used to be the Sport of Kings. The people who are running their horses on injected joints to hide fractures, the people using claiming races to dump their crippled horses. The people who send their hard-working racehorses off to the kill pens on sore and broken bodies, collecting a paltry $300, rather than spending that small amount to give that same horse a more dignified, peaceful ending.
"Consider these statistics from our first CANTER Program in Michigan, which started in 1997. They humanely euthanized 41 horses in 2007 alone after removing them from the racetrack. This program alone actively spends over $50,000 per year on surgeries to restore those more fortunate horses to a serviceable career.
"CANTER Mid Atlantic is currently home to 15 ex-racehorses, and over 60 have passed through our hands in 3 years. We have taken 15 of those 60 horses, only to use our funds to euthanize them because their racing injuries were too severe to recover from. Over the course of a year I see hundreds of horses whose only recourse at this point in their careers is euthanasia, but we can only afford to take in a fraction of them.
"These horses weren’t injured from a freak accident or a tragic misstep. They were injured over time with the assistance of trainers, owners and veterinarians–all who should have put the horse’s welfare as a higher priority. Like horses all over the country, these horses were injected with legal substances-both anabolic and catabolic steroids (cortisone), race day pain killers, and diuretics. We see the horses that pass through the claiming ranks and through multiple owners. The subsequent repeated use and abuse of these drugs on these horses is catastrophic. Worse, the legal drugs mask the use of the illicit drugs in these horses, which include EPO and cobra venom.
"The result? Bone-on-bone arthritis, multiple inoperable bone chips, ligaments and tendons completely torn away from the structure they once supported. They raced on fractures and they raced to exhaustion, but they always ran as fast as their bodies would allow.
"…There is no magical green field waiting for permanently injured racehorses. There is at best, a needle waiting and far too often something much worse. Racing authorities need to insist that owners take responsibility for injured horses and NOT pass them along, they need to do the right thing and put the welfare first of an animal that cannot speak on its own behalf. To do anything less is irresponsible and inhumane.
"….Perhaps the most disturbing part of our hard work is that we are trying our best to clean up racing’s mess without financial support from the racing industry. An informal poll of 5 different non-profits revealed that less than 5% of funding came from racing itself. Taking away the much appreciated grants received from Thoroughbred Charities of America and Blue Horse Charities and that number drops still more. Consider this, the re-homing groups get less than 5% from a billion-dollar industry, to care for the horses they’ve made their living from."
Many have argued that because owners can make money from the brutal slaughter of their horses, they have an incentive to over breed, to produce the throwaways as they look for "winners". There is little economic incentive for the industry to care for the horses after their racing days are over.
EndingÂ the slaughter of horses for human consumption may not end horse racing or improve the treatment of horses caught in that "sport", but if horse slaughter is illegal, there is less incentive for over breeding.
Click here and here for more on the link between horse racing and horse slaughter including video from HBO on this issue.
Equine Drugs Approved by FDA
– Anabolic Steroids
- Stanozolol (Winstrol)
– Anabolic Steroids
– Muscle Relaxant
– EIPH Treatment
– Anabolic Steroids
– Joint disease
1990’s and 2000’s
- Diclofenac (Surpass)
- Firocoxib (Equioxx)