Tox Tuesday: Anti-doping agency proposed for horse racing

Just as American Pharoah’s conquest of the Triple Crown ended 37 years of drama in the horse racing industry, a bill recently introduced into Congress aims to eliminate another type of drama that has surrounded the industry for decades: drug abuse.

As stated in a recent article, representatives Andy Barr, R–Kentucky, and Paul Tonko, D–New York, introduced the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015, which would grant authority for making and enforcing rules, as well as testing drugs and medication used in thoroughbred racing, to an entity known as the Thoroughbred Horseracing Anti-Doping Authority, created by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

The USADA is the official anti-doping agency for the United States Olympic team and the agency that has worked with Major League Baseball and other professional leagues to eliminate performance-enhancing drug use.

“The horse racing industry needs a makeover, and this bill has the potential to deliver a new regulatory framework with a science-based program and provide better protection for all of the athletes involved,” Wayne Pacelle, the president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, which backs the bill, said in the article.

The Thoroughbred Horseracing Anti-Doping Authority would be a nongovernmental organization, funded by the industry to start and run a nationwide anti-doping program that would go into effect on January 1, 2017, the article states.

“The sport of horse racing has been a part of American culture for hundreds of years, and we are hopeful that an independent, robust and harmonized anti-doping program can help to preserve the sport for generations to come,” Travis Tygart, USADA’s chief executive, said in the article.

However, while this bill has the backing of a broad coalition of prominent breeders, owners and trainers, in addition to powerful animal welfare groups, previous bills introduced to create stiffer testing and penalty programs nationally have gained little traction, both within the industry and Congress.

In addition to the challenges that come with finding unanimity and passing legislation, Trainer Rick Hiles, the president of the Kentucky Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents owners and trainers, said in an article that he sees problems with the bill as it allows the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to create a separate authority to oversee medication testing for American racing, something that now is overseen by individual state racing commissions.

“The plan is like saying, ‘OK, the state police can’t handle the highways and the speeders, so we’re going to get an independent agency to catch people speeding,’” he explained.

The article goes on to describe that currently many states have adopted a similar set of rules—under an effort to voluntarily have uniform medication rules and penalties—but some states are outliers or have slight differences from the model.

This bill would also leave the biggest medication issue dividing American racing—whether horses should still be allowed to receive race-day injections of the anti-bleeding drug furosemide (also known as Lasix) to those in the Thoroughbred Horseracing Anti-Doping Authority.

If this happens, a ban on race-day medication, including furosemide, could result. Some consider furosemide to be a performance-enhancing drug and that its use leaves U.S. racing scorned as the international racing community does not allow its use on race-day.

Others, however, believe furosemide is therapeutic and the decision for its use should not be made by the new authority the bill would create.

“They’ve tried every avenue they can to ban it on race day,” Hiles said in the article. “They have been unsuccessful, so this is just another avenue to get to it.”

The issue of performance-enhancing drugs was most recently chronicled in a 2012 New York Times investigation that showed how America’s pervasive drug culture has put horses and riders at risk. The investigation found that 24 horses a week were dying at America’s racetracks, a rate higher than those in countries where drug use was severely restricted.

Barry Irwin, chief executive of Team Valor International and a member of the Water Hay Oats Alliance, who is backing the bill, said in the article that the uneven efforts of racing commissions in individual states had failed to catch or discourage cheaters.

“We need to bring uniformity in the form of an independent group that can just tie the whole thing together and give us harmony,” Irwin said. “I want to see a level playing field; we don’t have a level playing field right now.”

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