The HSUS and its affiliates have worked to drive big changes to our society’s use of animals – with the forces of change effecting reforms in food and agriculture, animal testing, and entertainment sectors, among other areas. We’ve outlawed dogfighting and cockfighting throughout the United States. Greyhound racing is withering and in decline, as my colleague Mike Markarian wrote in his blog today. But the horse racing industry, despite a substantial number of people within the industry advocating for change for the good, has been resistant and even hostile to change, even though there are widespread, documented, and endemic problems within their industry.
The eve of the Kentucky Derby – the biggest showcase of a sport that, by all indications, is also in decline – is a good time to refocus on the idea of national reform. In Louisville, thousands of horse enthusiasts will gather to watch these beautiful animals compete. But a growing number of people are asking for more than participation in the industry. They want proper oversight of it.
The federal Interstate Horseracing Act provides a legal framework for wagering in all the horse racing states. But animal care and welfare is exclusively a state responsibility as a regulatory matter, with different rules applying from state to state. This patchwork of 38 state racing commissions often involve industry insiders overseeing trainers and owners and jockeys in the industry, creating built-in conflicts. The balkanized regulatory framework allows unscrupulous owners and trainers to shop their horses to jurisdictions where they can get away with cheating — administering performance-enhancing drugs to mask pain or to get injured horses on the track, making the animals more vulnerable to breakdowns or other significant health crises.
Football, cycling, and all of the other major sports have a national regulatory body that provides oversight and a framework for enforcement. Horse racing should have national oversight too. They’ve had decades to get their act together through self-regulation, and it hasn’t worked.
Last year, I announced that The HSUS — in an effort to protect equine and human athletes in the industry and to do it in the most informed way — formed the National Horse Racing Advisory Council. The council is made up exclusively of horse-racing professionals from around the country, led by Joe De Francis, former CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club. Joe, a steadfast champion of the welfare of horses, believes as we do that everyone who makes or has made a living from the horse racing industry has a moral obligation to take all reasonable steps necessary to protect and enhance the welfare of the equine athletes who are the heart and soul of the sport and business of horse racing.
Other members of the council include Jim Gagliano, president and COO of The Jockey Club, the breed registry established in 1894 that is playing a central role backing federal legislation to end the doping of horses; Chris McCarron, thoroughbred horse racing Hall of Fame jockey who’s won all three legs of the Triple Crown twice; Julie Krone, the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race and also the first woman inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, Staci Hancock, notable champion breeder; Allen Gutterman, a lifelong industry professional; and Joe Gorajec, former executive director of the Indiana Racing Commission.
These leaders will also serve as advisors and resources for the legislative and regulatory work of The HSUS’s own Equine Protection team, and will help continue our efforts in collaboration with the Coalition for Horseracing Integrity – a group The HSUS joined in 2015 to push the discussion on equine welfare policies forward.
The coalition is aggressively advocating for federal legislation — the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015, to be introduced by Reps. Andy Barr, R-Ky., Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Greg Meeks, D-N.Y. — that would establish a uniform set of rules, testing procedures, and penalties created by a board headed by the non-profit U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). That same anti-doping agency monitors Olympic sports in the United States, and it’s ready and willing to rid racing of unethical drugging and doping of horses if Congress authorizes it to do so.
“I truly believe that meaningful medication reform is absolutely essential for horse racing to have a successful future in the United States,” said Joe Francis, who ran Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course (home of the Preakness Stakes). “For far too long, we in America have lagged, not led, the international racing community, and it is imperative that we reverse this situation and become a leader in this critically important area.”
Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to horses. If we are going to put them to work for our entertainment, and use their gift of great speed, we must do so with tender care and take every reasonable step to assure their safety, at every stage of their lives. They are remarkable athletes, and many of them may love to compete, but they are conscripted into this enterprise. They are not volunteers. It is not too much to ask Congress — which enables this entire industry to operate by allowing gambling nationwide through the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 — to advance legislation that will put an end to practices that are disabling and killing horses and causing injury and sometimes death to jockeys on the tracks every day of the year in the United States.