Observers Call for Uniformity

By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 23, 2008

The horse racing industry reacted to the on-track death of Eight Belles after the Kentucky Derby with a flurry of announcements addressing equine safety, but decentralized leadership, sharply competing interests and a lack of comprehensive, transparent statistical information undermine meaningful progress toward addressing key issues, according to leading figures in racing, government and animal advocacy organizations.

"The surface of the track, the medication, the breeding, the type of horseshoes -- all of these things -- it seems like if you had this information when a horse breaks down, it would be valuable to the industry," said Rep. Edward Whitfield (R-Ky.), a member of the House Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee who would like to see reform in the sport. "They don't even require necropsies in Kentucky. They don't really have any records available to them of breakdowns in Kentucky."

Whitfield, a key sponsor of the anti-slaughter Horse Protection Act, and his wife, Connie Harriman-Whitfield, vice chair of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, said they are frustrated that racing is governed by 40 state racing commissions rather than a centralized authority similar to that in the NFL and Major League Baseball.

"One of the major problems in addressing these issues is the industry has no leaders," Harriman-Whitfield said. "It's divided, it's contentious, one competitor fighting against another. Maybe some recommendations are offered, but nothing is implemented. Then you have all these racing jurisdictions and each has different rules, [and] there are a lot of regulators that don't have a knowledge of racing."

A recent example of the lack of uniform leadership policy came in January, when the Maryland Racing Commission postponed a ban on the race-day presence of steroids in horses at the urging of horsemen and veterinarians.

The ban was set to be implemented at the opening of the Pimlico spring meet April 19, but Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association representatives insisted too many questions remained about drug withdrawal times, penalties and therapeutic usage. The commission pushed back its goal for a ban to Jan. 1, 2009.

The decision in Maryland had an impact on racing in Delaware and Pennsylvania, two states that banned steroid use this year, cutting down the interstate traffic in horses that normally would race at tracks throughout the mid-Atlantic region. Delaware, which struggles to fill its fields because of a horse shortage, recently adopted a penalty-free leniency period for runners who test positive for steroids through Sept. 30.

"It's one of the biggest problems racing faces," said John Franzone, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission. "That's why you have an NFL. That's why you have a professional golfer's tour, so you don't have this renegade activity. It's not to say these individual states do a bad job, but . . . could we do a much better job? Absolutely."

While the number of horses euthanized nationally because of on-track injuries is less than two for every 1,000 starts, horses clearly are not as robust as they once were. In Maryland, the average number of runners euthanized yearly following on-track injuries climbed from 22.5 per year between 1996 and 2001 to 26 from 2002 through 2007, according to racing commission figures.

Most experts interviewed pointed to the casual and pervasive use of medications as well as a breeding industry that favors speed over soundness as prime causes for the decline in yearly starts per runner from a 57-year high of 11.31 in 1960 to an all-time low of 6.31 in 2007.

Issues of track surface safety have deeply divided the most experienced horsemen in the country, as some racetrack operators have dug up their dirt courses and replaced them with artificial surfaces before definitive data have been produced showing they reduce the risk of catastrophic injuries.

Attempting to address the issues, the Jockey Club -- the official registry of thoroughbreds in North America -- announced the formation this month of a Thoroughbred Safety Committee that includes some of the most respected names in the sport. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, a promotional and lobbying group, called for greater coordination of safety initiatives. The sport's Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit continue to develop policy.

None of these organizations have binding authority.

"That's the problem," said John Sparkman, bloodstock editor at the Thoroughbred Times. "Useless committees are not the way to do it. I'm trying to avoid a derogatory term, but the good gentlemen of racing, that's all they know how to do."

The Humane Society would like races for 2-year-olds discontinued and the Triple Crown series contested by 4-year-olds rather than 3-year-olds. It also would like to see a transition toward artificial surfaces as well as a ban on race-day medication and the use of drugs to keep injured horses in training. Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said that without centralized leadership, racing likely would not rally to reform without negative incidents acting as triggers.

"Fear is a big motivator for industries that have problems to wrestle with," Pacelle said.

"Congress's authority is fear. There are laws that regulate interstate transport of animals. You have gambling of an interstate nature. Congress can weigh in on this issue and do something of value, or it can overreach. The industry has greater interest than anyone else in this debate in managing this discussion, and they can only do so if they are at the table."

Whitfield, however, said federal intervention would be highly problematic, with the horsemen's groups, breeders and track owners leaning hard on their congressional representatives for support.

"The only way it will work," Whitfield said, "is if you get enough prominent owners and breeders to get together and say, 'We want some federal guidelines.' "

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