Governing Body Urged for Racing Industry

By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 20, 2008

A bill that would mandate a framework for a national horse racing commission similar to those that govern the NFL and NBA is likely to be submitted in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) said yesterday.

The bill would create uniformity and centralize new rules and regulations for all 38 thoroughbred racing jurisdictions in the country. Stearns announced plans for the bill at a subcommittee hearing on thoroughbred racing and welfare, at which a majority of witnesses on two panels urged Congress to get involved in a sport rife with medication and steroid abuse in horses, unhealthy breeding practices and a lack of comprehensive data relating to auctions and breakdowns.

"Our structure is dysfunctional and needs to be functional," said Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board.

Shapiro, joined by others, said he supported federal regulation only "as a last resort," but agreed racing -- which has come under increased scrutiny since the on-track death last month of filly Eight Belles after the Kentucky Derby -- needed a national commission.

"At the minimum, we need a national database to track how they die, and not just on the track," said Stearns, co-chairman of the Congressional Horse Caucus. "If they don't do something, we will."

Stearns referred to a recent Association of Racing Commissioners International report that said 3,035 horses have died in the past five years at racetracks around the country.

"Are you going to tell me this is okay?" he asked the panelists.

Rep. Edward Whitfield (R-Ky.) pointed out during the hearing that the racing industry had implored Congress to pass the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978, which ushered in the rise of off-track simulcast wagering, as well as amend the Wire Act to allow telephone wagering. Similarly, Congress exempted racing from the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, which outlawed the transfer of U.S. funds for use in online gambling.

"If the federal government provides the vehicle for the revenue -- simulcasting -- we have an obligation to ensure the integrity of the sport," Whitfield said.

Of the $14.7 billion wagered legally last year on horse racing, more than $13 billion was bet from off-track sites, according to recent Jockey Club statistics. The threat of rescinding laws that permit the primary funding streams of the sport are "like a hammer or stick to get [the industry] moving," Stearns said.

Alan Marzelli, president and chief operating officer of the Jockey Club, told the subcommittee that despite the inefficiencies caused by 38 racing jurisdictions and myriad interest groups, the sport is capable of governing itself. He cited the formation of a Jockey Club-led thoroughbred safety committee after the death of Eight Belles that on Tuesday announced recommendations to ban the use of steroids and shoes called "toe grabs" as well as modified rules for the use of whips by jockeys.

Asked by Whitfield if the Jockey Club had the power to implement the rules, Marzelli responded, "We have the power of persuasion and consensus-building."

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