Opinion | Energy & Environment

Are 23 horse deaths enough to clean up the racing industry?

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The shocking number of horse deaths - 23 - since late December at the storied Santa Anita racetrack outside Los Angeles has once again exposed serious safety and welfare concerns in the racing industry.

It's still unclear what factors, including a prolonged period of heavy rain, led to this series of catastrophic breakdowns; necropsies and an investigation might provide answers. Regardless, it appears that whatever checks and oversight procedures were in place failed to protect these equine athletes.

Recently, Santa Anita Park set an important precedent by announcing that it would phase out the use of drugs on race days. Now, the rest of the industry needs to stop dragging its feet.

Arguably, the most pressing problem that plagues horse racing - and one that has tarnished public perception of the sport - is the continued reliance on drugs to enhance performance, mask pain and push unsound horses to compete past their limit. A 2015 survey found that 90 percent of Americans support efforts to consistently regulate the use of medications and performance-enhancing drugs for racehorses.

The news out of Santa Anita is unusual given the spike in fatalities over a short time, yet hundreds of racehorses die on the track each year in the United States.

Fortunately, reforms could be on the way. Reps. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) - co-chairmen of the Congressional Horse Caucus - recently introduced the bipartisan Horseracing Integrity Act (H.R. 1754) to tackle some of the sport's most glaring problems.

The bill would create an independent anti-doping authority that would set uniform national standards, testing procedures and penalties for the racing industry, replacing the patchwork and wildly inconsistent regulatory structures that currently exist among 38 jurisdictions. Moreover, the bill would prohibit race-day medications, aligning U.S. standards with those abroad. 

A 2012 New York Times investigation found that the U.S. horse racing industry remains "mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation and a fatal breakdown rate that remains far worse than in most of the world." Not much has changed in the years since.

It's telling that while virtually all American racehorses are injected with medications on race day, this practice is banned in most other countries. The unfortunate reality is that administering a cocktail of drugs shortly before a race can hide injuries, pain, inflammation and other warning signs that precede catastrophic breakdowns. 

Watching a horse break down on a track is a horrific sight. Yet, fatal injuries will persist as long as 1,000-pound animals are driven beyond what their bodies can reasonably sustain. While it's unlikely that a perfect solution exists to satisfy all stakeholders, there is widespread agreement that the status quo is untenable.

The Horseracing Integrity Act enjoys significant support among lawmakers (garnering 132 cosponsors last Congress) and within the racing industry. During a congressional hearing last year, The Jockey Club testified on the need for "an independent organization ... to apply uniform rules, stringent testing, tough penalties, and effective enforcement." Indeed, The Stronach Group, which owns the Santa Anita Park and is one of the world's leading racetrack operators, has similarly endorsed the legislation, citing the need to raise standards that can directly improve the welfare and safety of the thousands of horses who race each year.

The rash of deaths at Santa Anita has understandably provoked outrage at the senseless loss of so many horses in their prime. Seeing the dire consequences writ large should, if nothing else, build momentum to pass broadly supported legislation that would help the industry clean up its act.

Joanna Grossman, Ph.D., is the equine protection manager for the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute.

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