Unlikely allies push horse racing reform
American horse racing has had a turbulent year with a spike in fatalities at Santa Anita Park in southern California and other equine health issues. No one knows why 30 horses died this past spring at Santa Anita because injuries and deaths are caused by a series of events, such as the track surface, existing unknown injuries, medication use or abuse, and/or other various factors.
Progress has been made as the industry works to understand the situation at Santa Anita and other tracks by improving racing conditions, including improved racetrack surfaces, better pre-race veterinary inspections, changes in race-day medication, and enhanced training protocols.
But much more needs to be done.
A key problem affecting the health of horses remains the abuse and misuse of drugs. Nationwide, racing is plagued by the overuse of therapeutic drugs, which can serve as performance enhancers by enabling horses to push through pain and compete, contributing to the cause of many injuries and deaths.
Perhaps the most important racing reform to improve the health of horses is to establish a national system of equine medication regulation. Today, we have disparate regulations fragmented across 38 states, a patchwork quilt of rules, and racehorses fall through the holes far too often. Among jurisdictions, there is little transparency of treatment records or sharing of the medical history of individual horses. As a result, regulators cannot effectively manage the many issues involved in the health and safety of racehorses.
To address this problem, the Horseracing Integrity Act (HIA) was introduced by Reps. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Andy Barr (R-Ky.) with companion legislation introduced in the Senate by Sens. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and McSally (R-Ariz.). HIA will reform medication use and establish a national anti-doping authority operating under the auspices of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and independent equine experts. USADA is the same congressionally approved organization that governs the medication program for the nation’s Olympic athletes.
The authority established by HIA would significantly improve the health of racehorses by giving us full medication and medical treatment transparency into the racehorse combined with drug reform and a comprehensive system of out-of-competition testing to ensure records are truthful. That means full transparency for investigation of treatments and drugs given to our equine athletes.
And many might be surprised by the support for this legislation from leading animal welfare organizations. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is an outspoken supporter of the HIA as is Animal Wellness Action, one of the nation’s leading groups advocating against animal cruelty. The HSUS is a founding member of the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity and established the National Horse Racing Advisory Council to help improve equine health. The Animal Welfare Institute, one of the oldest animal welfare organizations, and the ASPCA are also part of the coalition. In addition, our effort has the support of equine welfare groups, including Horses for Life. Even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals supports HIA because it will improve racehorse health.
The work of many in the horse racing industry and dedicated animal welfare groups are giving wind to the wings of reform. HIA is moving with 172 co-sponsors in House and hearings and a committee markup look likely for early next year in the Energy and Commerce Committee.
We can significantly improve equine health and reduce fatalities, but to do so, we need one set of anti-doping and medication rules across the country, a system that the Horseracing Integrity Act will create. To date, the industry has been unable or unwilling to act. Congress needs to pass this legislation to better protect the health of our equine athletes.
Shawn Smeallie is the executive director of the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity based in Washington, D.C. Coalition members include American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), The Humane Society of the United States and Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Association.
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