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Horse Industry Split On Bill To Introduce More Federal Regulation

horse churchill downs
Horses workout on the backside of Churchill Downs on April 27, 2018.

It’s a cool spring morning just about dawn on the backside of Churchill Downs, eight days before the Derby. Exercise riders on gleaming racehorses trot past the barns and onto the track for a workout. Some horses have already finished and are being hosed down…they’re so warm, steam is rising off their backs when the water hits.

Here in Kentucky, the horses galloping past are subject to a laundry list of regulations. There are drugs they can’t ever take — like anabolic steroids — and medications they can. There are rules on how the horses are tested and for what and when. If an owner takes his horse from Kentucky onto the other legs of the Triple Crown in Maryland and New York, the major rules are the same, but there are some variations.

And that’s one of the goals of the Horseracing Integrity Act, most recently introduced in 2017 by Kentucky Congressman Andy Barr: to bring all of the country’s 38 racing jurisdictions under the same set of rules.

“We believe that uniform medication rules will not only ensure the fairness and integrity of the sport but it will also help ensure the competitiveness of American thoroughbred racing around the world,” Barr said.

But while just about everyone in the industry can agree that uniformity is important, they all disagree about how to get there.

Eric Hamelback is the CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association; his group is a vocal opponent of Barr’s bill.

“Obviously, uniformity is something we all look to try to achieve,” he said. “But clarify uniformity.”

Hamelback said right now, in the United States, racing jurisdictions agree on the major rules. But there are variations in factors like medication withdrawal time, and who administers drugs to horses.

He said it’s analogous to vehicle laws.

“I would ask you, is there a state in our union that it’s OK to drive drunk or intoxicated, can you name one?” he asked. “No. but are the speed limits the same in every state? They are not.”

Lasix: A ‘Drug’ Or A ‘Medication?’

If you ask the people on the front lines — the ones who actually deal with the horses — they’ll say, sure uniformity is great. But Barr’s bill would do something else, too: ban the administration of a drug called Lasix on race days. And that’s a deal breaker for many.

As the top Derby contenders hit the track for a workout at Churchill Downs, trainers gather on a wooden platform to watch.

“The number one issue is eliminating race day Lasix,” said Buff Bradley. He’s a trainer, who also owns and breeds horses near Frankfort.

Here’s what Lasix is supposed to do: it keeps racehorses from experiencing a condition called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. That’s when the intense exertion from a race causes bleeding in a horse’s lungs.

Horses that have this condition are called “bleeders,” and in Kentucky, every time this bleeding gushes out of their nostrils,they can’t race for a set amount of time. Horses that bleed four times in a year are permanently disqualified. So there’s a pretty big incentive for trainers to make sure their horses don’t bleed — ever.

“And I don’t like calling Lasix a drug,” Bradley said. “It’s a medication.”

That’s why in the U.S., horses are allowed to get a shot of Lasix four hours before they run. And trainer Ian Wilkes says these days, almost every horse gets it as a preventative measure.

“The cruelty of seeing a horse gush, you don’t want to see that,” he said. “So my thing with Lasix, is there’s no question.”

But Lasix has a side effect, too. It’s a diuretic, and taking it makes a horse drop about twenty-five pounds of water weight. This, some say, can give a horse an advantage during a race or potentially mask other serious health conditions. Shawn Smeallie is the executive director of the Coalition for Horseracing Integrity — a group advocating for the bill.

“It definitely is a medication for horses that bleed,” he said. “But I don’t know what you call it for horses that use it that don’t bleed. So clearly, the fact that a first-time Lasix user, you put it in the Daily Racing Form right, to me shows there’s a performance-enhancing value to this.”

And he points out: race-day Lasix is banned in every major racing jurisdiction outside the United States.

States' Rights

Besides the Lasix issue, the bill’s supporters say it’s necessary to make sure people are confident in America’s horse racing — and betting — industries. It would move regulation of testing for banned substances under the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees testing of Olympic athletes.

But opponents say it’s unnecessary. That it’s an unfunded mandate. That the industry itself is making progress towards uniformity, and that what’s really necessary is getting all of the country’s testing laboratories on the same page.

“States don’t want to give up their rights and that’s what it really boils down to,” said Terri Burch, the interim director of the Equine Industry program at the University of Louisville. She said the tradition-steeped industry has always been resistant to change.

“Kentucky wants to be able to regulate the way Kentucky wants to. Maryland wants to regulate the way Maryland wants to. New York wants to regulate the way New York wants to,” she said.

A number of industry groups have lined up to oppose the bill, as well as Churchill Downs, Incorporated and the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

But there are a number of industry groups and prominent horse trainers that have come out in support, too. That includes the company that owns the Belmont racetrack and Frank Stronach, whose company owns Pimlico. Those are the second and third legs of the Triple Crown. 

And Barr’s bill also has something else: bipartisan support. The Horseracing Integrity Act has more than 100 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, though none of Kentucky’s other congressmen have signed on. It’s been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Barr says he believes a hearing is likely soon.

This post has been updated to reflect that Frank Stronach — not the Stronach Group — is in support of the legislation.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.