At the 144th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico racetrack in Maryland this past Saturday, all eyes were on Bodexpress, a horse who unseated his jockey just out of the starting gate. Bodexpress went on to gallop riderless down the homestretch – and got himself disqualified. For those concerned with animal welfare, however, it was a moment symbolic of what the U.S. horseracing industry itself has become: an enterprise without a rider, struggling to keep pace in a world of changing values and expectations.
That’s because Bodexpress was not the only horse to make headlines last week for the wrong reasons. On Friday, a three-year-old gelding named Commander Coil died at the Santa Anita Racetrack in California – the 24th horse to have died there since December. Just hours later, Congrats Gal, a filly running in the Miss Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, died of a reported heart attack.
The multi-billion-dollar U.S. horseracing industry, once the envy of the world, is facing a global reputation crisis, for failing to keep up with the higher welfare standards established in other countries. And one of the chief reasons for this is the industry’s continued and widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs – a practice banned or well-regulated in every other major sport in the United States.
The problem began when Congress, in 1980, decided to leave it up to states to come up with their own rules on what drugs to allow in horse racing. This has led to a confusing patchwork of 38 state laws with no uniform national standard, and it’s been a boon for unethical trainers who can move from state to state to avoid penalties while continuing to dope and race horses.
The widespread use of both legal and illegal drugs can lead to a multitude of problems, both for the equine athletes and their riders. Some trainers employ drugs that allow a horse to push through pain, intensifying an injury, or force worn-out horses to compete, which can result in career-ending injuries and even death. Overuse and abuse of drugs administered too close to a race can also mask lameness in horses during pre-race exams – a problem veterinarians and other racing officials have expressed concerns about – endangering both the horse and the rider during a race.
Too many American racehorses are currently also administered race-day drugs to enhance their performance, a practice banned by nearly all other countries.
In past years, the U.S. horse racing industry has made progress in some important areas, like creating aftercare initiatives to help some retired racehorses transition to new careers and avoid being shipped abroad for slaughter. But the industry also needs to consider the welfare of the athletes who are still racing. We are already seeing progress at some racetracks following increased scrutiny of the sport and public outcry, including at Santa Anita, which has moved to make some changes following the horse deaths, and at Golden Gate Fields.
What the sport desperately needs is a central authority to set and oversee all drug and medication rules and penalties. The Humane Society of the United States is pressing for passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act, H.R.1754, reintroduced in this Congress by Representatives Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., and Andy Barr, R-Ky. This important bill would create a single set of anti-doping and medication rules across the country. It would ban race-day medication, enact more rigorous and uniform medication rules and penalties, and increase out-of-competition testing that will enhance the welfare of horses. Many industry leaders and animal protection organizations have been calling for such reforms for years.
The bill will also substantively increase out-of-competition testing, a system in which horses are randomly tested without prior notification. Currently, less than 1% of U.S. Thoroughbred racing tests are performed out of competition, which provides unethical trainers the opportunity to game the system.
With all the tragic news we’ve had about racehorses in recent months, one thing is for certain: the U.S. racing industry simply can’t continue hurtling down the track it is now on. Doing so will not only cause more damage to the sport, it will almost certainly result in the deaths of more horses. If a horse needs drugs in order to race, that horse should not be on the track. Please call your lawmakers today and ask them to cosponsor the Horseracing Integrity Act, and to do all they can to ensure its passage, to protect the lives – and future – of American racing equine athletes.