The integrity of international cycling has been tarnished because of confirmed cases of doping at the highest rungs of the industry, with Lance Armstrong’s remarkable record nullified because of his use of performance-enhancing drugs. We have seen a series of scandals in Major League baseball, with Barry Bonds, the greatest home run hitter of all time, having a permanent asterisk by his achievement because of his use of performance-enhancing drugs. Both sports, in response to scandal and embarrassment, set up rigorous standards to prevent doping and to catch and punish violators.
In horse racing, there is continuing scandal, but little embarrassment. There is widespread drugging of equine athletes, but leaders of many racing organizations are fiercely resisting reforms at the national level, even though the whole enterprise engages in interstate gambling only with the consent of Congress.
It is common for racehorses in the United States to be given drugs on race day to enhance their performance, which stands in sharp contrast to horse racing standards in Australia, the United Kingdom, and other major racing nations. In the United States, there is a patchwork of over three dozen horse racing jurisdictions, all with different medications permitted, varying levels of those medications allowed, different penalties for violations, different rules on which horses are tested for drugs, and different laboratories used to do the testing. Without one single regulating body, racehorse owners and trainers who are barred from racing in one jurisdiction can simply move their business elsewhere. While racing without same-day medications is thriving around the globe, racehorses in the United States continue to be doped. They are breaking down with unacceptable frequency and run many fewer races during their careers, principally because they are not as healthy as their predecessors.
This is an especially hot topic right now: there are federal reform measures pending in both the House and Senate (H.R. 2012 from Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Penn., and S. 973 from Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.) to address the issue of drugged racehorses in the United States; there has been persistent reporting by the New York Times that reveals 24 horses die a week on American race tracks; and there is the possibility of the first Triple Crown winner in the United States since 1978.
The HSUS is advocating for the passage of that legislation, known as the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2013, which would designate the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) as the independent anti-doping organization for interstate horse races. This is the same agency that is recognized by Congress as the official anti-doping agency for the Olympic, Pan American and Paralympic sports in the United States. USADA would create rules regarding the use of permitted and prohibited substances, and develop anti-doping education, research, testing and adjudication programs.
The racing industry has failed to regulate itself and every day racehorses are paying for this with their lives. It’s time for the horse racing industry to be held to the same standards as other competitive sports. Today New York Times columnist Juliet Macur and yesterday Kentucky Derby-winning breeder Jim Squires, also in the Times, made that very point in calling the industry out and demanding it get behind real reform.
Any sports gaming industry that takes shortcuts on the welfare of its athletes and that cheats or misleads its customers will see an erosion in public support. Only when the racing industry takes the necessary steps to put the horses’ welfare first will it regain its standing, and only then can it hope to reverse what is widely viewed as an irreversible decline in attendance and the handle at tracks – to say nothing of deaths and injuries suffered by so many horses used by the industry.
We will be paying close attention to the running of the Belmont Stakes this weekend, breathless about the prospects of California Chrome. But even if all the athletes cross the finish line unharmed, and even if there is a new Triple Crown winner, horse racing will still be in the grips of persistent problems it has chosen to run away from. At this point, the best we can say is that there are many good people within the industry, and they care about the welfare of horses, but that the leadership of the industry and too many rank-and-file owners, trainers and breeders are willing either to tolerate or participate in corrupt and unethical practices in order to win, place or show.