Before leading the effort to rid horse racing of drugs, Mitch McConnell was seen as a roadblock to reform.
Arthur Hancock, a third-generation horseman whose grandfather founded Claiborne Farm, says the Senate Majority Leader once told him he could not support a bill that would ban race-day doping and set national standards to be overseen by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) unless the legislation had the blessing of Churchill Downs.
But with racehorses dying at alarming rates and 27 trainers and veterinarians facing federal indictments for a “widespread, corrupt” doping scheme, McConnell read a March 13 editorial in the Washington Post calling for the abolition of a sport synonymous with his home state.
The obstacle became the advocate.
“I think Sen. McConnell knew of efforts to have some sort of federal legislation to address the problem, but I know the Washington Post article was his wake-up call,” said Staci Hancock, managing member of the Water Hay Oats Alliance. “He saw how important it was to the state of Kentucky. He was really instrumental in bringing this home.”
The omnibus bill that passed the senate Monday night was still awaiting President Trump’s signature Tuesday afternoon. But after nearly a decade of unsuccessful lobbying and years of unhappy headlines, numerous racing entities celebrated passage of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act as a landmark achievement for a sport McConnell has said faced an “existential” crisis.
“This marks the single most significant safety and integrity development in the history of thoroughbred racing,” Breeders’ Cup President Drew Fleming said.
“This game-changing, bipartisan legislation will protect the health and safety of equine athletes and provide clean competitors a level playing field,” USADA said in a prepared statement. “USADA is honored and humbled to carry out the anti-doping responsibilities detailed in the act, implementing uniform rules through our independent model in service of clean competition. As with Olympic sport, one set of rules, enforced independently and uniformly, is the bedrock of any meaningful anti-doping program.”
Some industry insiders insist the introduction of stricter drug policies will result in severe unintended consequences. Dennis Drazin, chairman of the parent company of New Jersey’s Monmouth Park, told a Congressional subcommittee in January the bill would likely put his track out of business because diminished field size would result in smaller betting handles.
Eric Hamelback, chief executive officer of the Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association, has characterized the bill as an “elitist” effort to squeeze out small-time operations, a “battle of the haves and have-nots.”
“They wanted the sport of Kings back,” Hamelback said.
Yet while even at its loftiest levels, racing has been deeply divided on a prohibition on race-day Lasix and wary of the intervention of an independent third-party such as USADA. While the blue-blooded Jockey Club has been on board since 2015, other important constituencies have balked. Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen expressed “serious concerns” about the bill last year, adding, “We don’t believe a federal bill is practical, reasonable, or imminent.”
Churchill’s statement Tuesday reflected a dramatic change in tune and, according to several sources, represents a response to an “or else” message from McConnell to find common ground within the industry or risk having terms imposed from Washington.
“It is critical to the future of thoroughbred racing that the safety and integrity of our sport be governed by world-class, uniform standards across the United States,” Churchill Downs’ Tuesday statement said. “The leadership of Senator McConnell and Congressman (Andy) Barr has been instrumental in our shared goal of bringing the thoroughbred industry together to achieve this goal.”
With 38 racing jurisdictions in the United States, achieving consistency in the drafting and enforcement of rules has been an elusive goal. Three days before the 2011 Kentucky Derby, supporters of what was then known as the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act sent out a letter that said America stands alone as a “rogue nation” because of its permissive use of race day medications.”
Arthur and Staci Hancock were two of the signatories on that letter. Tuesday, nine years and seven months later, they were waiting for word from the White House to start celebrating.
“I think I slept about three hours last night,” Arthur Hancock said. “I think I’m going to get a ready-made blackberry cobbler and a quart of vanilla ice cream and eat the whole thing.”