President Ronald Reagan once quipped that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” This lesson has been forgotten by some in the horse racing industry who are calling for the federal government to oversee an industry it knows nothing about — horse racing.
Catastrophic incidents involving thoroughbred racehorses are horrifying and hideous. Unfortunately, the causes are the terrible manifestation of problems mostly incorrectly identified. In this regard, the push by some of racing’s elite to support the federal Horse Racing Integrity Act is misplaced. Not only will the legislation not save the life or career of a single racehorse, it will cause our horses more harm than good.
Read the bill and it is clear that the true intent is to create a federal bureaucracy these same interests can influence, and ban currently legal and beneficial medication. Specifically, the bill would ban the use of Lasix on race day. This is perplexing, since the American Association of Equine Practitioners states that “absent a more effective treatment/preventative for exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH), the AAEP supports the use of [Lasix] as a day-of-the-race medication to control EIPH.”
Not only is this bill dangerous for horses, it is loaded with ulterior motive. The most vocal proponents of this bill are the breeders, who worry the use of Lasix causes a lower sale price in Europe. For them, this bill is a way to get a higher return on investment.
By taking decision-making away from independent state regulators, the proponents will finally be able to drown out the voices of competent veteran horsemen, veterinarians and others who recognize the patent difference between legal, therapeutic medication and doping. In proposing what “looks good,” the legislation actually denies the horse.
Every state racing board, including New York’s commission, maintains stringent regulations that not only ban all forms of drugging and illicit procedures, but also severely restrict the use of therapeutic medications, including Lasix. Each has established penalties for overages of even these permissive medications. New York’s imposition of decade-long suspensions of licensed trainers for repeated violations is testament to no-nonsense enforcement of commission rules. The federal bill is no stronger in this area, yet it allows for hefty fees from industry for what constitutes duplication of effective, state-based oversight.
Consider also that as horses were breaking down at an alarming rate in California, horses in New York and elsewhere were not. If Lasix was the root cause of horse fatalities, the high numerical incidence would be consistently widespread across all states with a racing presence. But that is not the case. In 2019, there have been no equine racing deaths at Saratoga Harness and only one at Yonkers Raceway (no apparent connection to medication), despite several thousands of individual race entries.
Instead of turning its sights to this false veneer of a “solution,” Congress should work to solve our most pressing crises, such as immigration, health care costs, mass shootings or the deficit, not the pet project of racing’s elite.
Chris E. Wittstruck, a lawyer and racehorse owner, is a director of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York and a member of the United States Trotting Association.