By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
The number of horses dying at the Santa Anita racetrack in California since December 2018 has led to widespread concern in the horseracing world and beyond, and prompted California Gov. Gavin Newsom to call for closing the racetrack until the safety of the horses can be guaranteed. These mysterious deaths – 29 so far – also underscore why we have been calling for urgent reforms within the horseracing industry.
The causes of the horse deaths at Santa Anita are under investigation, and one of the explanations in play is the rampant drugging of horses to get them onto the track when they should be resting and recovering from injuries.
The Stronach Group, owner of Santa Anita Park, has introduced new safety initiatives, including better veterinary oversight in the form of a five-member team of independent veterinarians and stewards who will provide additional review of horses’ medical, training and racing history and will have the authority to scratch horses that do not appear fit to run.
That’s a start but it’s not nearly enough. We shouldn’t be waiting for crisis to strike before acting to ensure the safety of racehorses. Horseracing is in a state of crisis, and we need urgent nationwide reform. That’s why we are supporting the Horseracing Integrity Act, H.R. 1754/S. 1820, a federal bill to regulate the use of drugs and medication in racehorses. Almost all American racehorses are injected with race-day medication, a practice banned by nearly every other country, and it’s time for the United States to catch up with the rest of the world.
Last week, we joined horseracing industry leaders to provide a briefing before the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus on the bill, sponsored by Reps. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., and Andy Barr, R-Ky., in the House, and by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., in the Senate. Its passage would create the Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority, a private, not-for-profit regulatory authority established and led by the United States Anti-Doping Agency or USADA, to implement rules regarding the use of permitted and prohibited substances and develop anti-doping education, research, testing and adjudication programs.
Currently there is no national rulebook for horseracing and 38 separate racing jurisdictions have separate and remarkably different rules that govern the sport in each of their states. This patchwork of laws has jeopardized the safety of horses, led to inconsistent and confusing rules, and given cheaters ample opportunity to game the system, with horses and jockeys paying the price when a horse breaks down on the track.
The Horseracing Integrity Act would address pervasive drug use in the industry while enhancing oversight. The bill includes stiff penalties for cheating that apply nationwide, with possible sanctions including lifetime bans from horseracing, forfeiture of purses, and monetary fines and penalties. It would also, importantly, ban race-day medication of horses, and require an increase in out-of-competition testing.
Under the current system, trainers often know when horses will be tested and which drugs will be screened for. This system has been exploited by racehorse trainers. One trainer, Stephanie Beattie, testified during the 2017 doping trial of two-time Penn National trainer Murray Rojas that she routinely had her horses illegally treated with medications on race day by the same veterinarians who provided drugs to Rojas. “Almost everybody did. 95 to 98%. It was a known practice. We wanted to win, and they weren’t testing for those drugs at that time,” she said.
At Santa Anita, despite the concerns, the organizers continue to race horses. We have called for them to stop until the investigation results have been released and until reforms are implemented in full. Meanwhile, we will be doing all we can to push for the passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act in Congress, and we need your help. You can play a critical role in protecting racehorses by contacting your federal legislators. Ask them to cosponsor this important bill to ensure that America’s equine athletes are safe on the racetracks.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.