This weekend will be the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby. For nearly 100 years, it has been the first of the Triple Crown races that are the premier event of horse racing in the United States. It should be a time of celebration for the sport, but instead there are deep questions about how horse racing treats its athletes: the horses and the jockeys who ride them.
Horseracing, like most sports, is not a risk-free undertaking. Horses love to run, but pushing them to the limit means risk of injury. In recent years, injuries have grown both more numerous and more serious as horses have been subject to a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs.
In 1978, Congress passed federal legislation to allow simulcast wagering across state lines. As a result, purses have increased in size and the pressure to win has grown. While the federal government has enabled huge revenues for the industry across the country, there is no nationwide regime of testing and sanctions.
There are 38 separate states that sanction races. These states face a catch-22: If they crack down too hard on trainers who dope and complicit veterinarians, they could drive racing out of their states. The Kentucky Derby will never leave its home state, but that is the exception, not the rule. If horse owners don’t like the rules or get caught cheating in one state, they can pick up stakes and move.
So what we have is a sport with interstate profits enabled by federal law, with horses crisscrossing the country, and operating under 38 different sets of rules. Imagine if Major League baseball had a similar structure? Alex Rodriquez could be banned in Florida, but not in New York.
When horses are pushed past their limit, they break down on the track and end up being euthanized. During a recent race season, an average of 24 horses a week were dying. If a horse breaks down in the middle of a race, the rider is often injured. A single horse falling can lead to a pile-up involving multiple horses and jockeys. Jockeys have been paralyzed and even killed.
I’ve introduced legislation that is a modest solution to big problem: place the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in charge of testing all horses that run in races simulcast under federal law. USADA is the testing authority that monitors U.S. Olympic athletes and that uncovered Lance Armstrong’s cheating. They are ready and willing to start testing horses too.
My bill wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime and wouldn’t supersede state authority over horseracing. It would simply say that if the horse is being bet on across state lines, then it needs to be clean. A small percentage of profits from nationally simulcast races could pay for a new, thorough testing regime.
On Saturday, Tapiture will be among the horses racing at Churchill Downs. The trainer of this horse, Steve Asmussen, has been penalized for doping in the past and is now under a cloud of suspicion after undercover video revealed that his horses were being given prescription medications simply to make them run faster. He publicly fired a long-time employees, but has refused to stay away from the Kentucky Derby.
Horseracing is a noble sport. It was George Washington’s favorite pastime. If the sport isn’t going to be clean, then we should question whether the federal government should still be giving it favored treatment. My bill, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, doesn’t ask too much of horseracing. It merely requires the sport to treat its athletes with the same care we expect from every other sport.
Pitts has represented Pennsylvania's 16th Congressional District since 1997. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee.