Horse racing is plagued by drug use and a poor reputation, and casual fans are turning away.
The Horseracing Integrity Act could rescue a sport that seems unwilling to save itself.
Twenty-two horses died at the famed Santa Anita racetrack in southern California before its owners halted the current racing season to determine what had caused so many fatal injuries within just a 10-week period.
An alarmed California Horse Racing Board last week imposed strict new safety and medication rules before allowing racing to resume. The deaths are also bringing new attention to the Horseracing Integrity Act, federal legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, the Democrat from Amsterdam, and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Kentucky Republican.
The bill proposes to put drug rule making, testing and enforcement in the hands of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the private, nonprofit government body that administers the Olympic anti-doping program. It would create a national, uniform standard for drugs and medication in horse racing.
Notably, the legislation is backed by the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, which includes racing organizations, racetracks, owner and breeder associations, and animal-welfare groups.
They all understand that the changes could help restore faith in a sport with a less-than-stellar reputation — one that, over decades, has experienced a dramatic decline in popularity. It's not hyperbolic to suggest Mr. Tonko's bill might save a sport that seems unwilling to save itself.
Often, doing the right thing butts up against economic realities. This, thankfully, is a case in which what's right is also the smart financial choice.
Nevertheless, the horse racing industry has been slow to recognize that questions about the treatment of its equine athletes present a threat to its very survival. With so many other entertainment options available, casual fans, especially, will turn away if they believe stars of the show are being mistreated.
Meanwhile, as sports gambling continues to expand, bettors also have more options. They may choose to bet on other sports if they believe widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs is tainting the integrity of races.
While experts disagree over what caused so many deaths so quickly in Santa Anita, the link between the overuse of drugs and fatal equine injuries is clear.
In some cases, drugs push the animals past natural limits and endurance. They also falsely prop up thoroughbred bloodlines that would otherwise expire, over time producing horses that are ill-prepared for the rigors of the sport.
The overwhelming majority of trainers and owners want to do what's best for their horses, and many understand that a more holistic approach to the sport could generate stronger horses. They also want to compete on a level field.
But the current state-by-state patchwork of laws and regulations makes it more difficult to do both. The Horseracing Integrity Act would change that, for the benefit of the sport, and its stars.
Source: Times Union