A stunning rash of horse fatalities could be breathing life into efforts to reform thoroughbred racing.
Nine days after Santa Anita was shut down following almost two dozen race-related deaths, Kentucky Republican Andy Barr and New York Democrat Paul Tonko reintroduced legislation Thursday that would establish uniform national medication standards, including the elimination of race-day Lasix.
Later Thursday, the Stronach Group, announced its unilateral decision to ban Lasix at its California tracks: Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields, to further restrict certain forms of therapy and anabolic steroids, to increase out-of-competition testing and to provide transparency on all veterinary records.
"We will wait no longer for the industry to come together as one to institute these changes," Belinda Stronach wrote in an open letter. "Nor will we wait for the legislation required to undertake this paradigm shift. We are taking a stand and fully recognize just how disruptive this might be."
The Horse Racing Integrity Act has failed to gain traction in three previous attempts since 2011, but advocates are hopeful the political calculus is changing amid the fallout from a recent rash of horse fatalities at Santa Anita.
Barr said the timing of the bill’s introduction was coincidental, but it occurred on the same day Santa Anita experienced its 22nd fatality since Dec. 26, a Thursday morning accident when Princess Lili B broke both front legs at the end of a half-mile workout.
“What’s happened out there at Santa Anita, it scares me,” said breeder Arthur Hancock, owner of Stone Farm in Paris, Kentucky. “It’s a crisis. ... I hope it has softened some of the objections from some people.”
“It’s not an issue only in California,” Breeders’ Cup President Craig Fravel said. “It’s something that needs to be addressed nationally.”
Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, says the state’s rate of race-related fatalities was “unprecedented” in 2018 at 2.39 per 1,000 starts. Veterinarians reports show Churchill Downs’ rate was higher still last year, with 16 race-related fatalities translating as 2.73 per 1,000 starts.
Horse Racing Fatalities in Kentucky
This list shows race related fatalities in Kentucky. This does not reflect training incidents.
Scollay says the causes for the spike are "multifactorial," but Hancock suspects painkillers cause hurt horses to continue competing at greater risk of catastrophic injuries. Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of Santa Anita parent The Stronach Group, says perceived pressure on trainers to fill fields with unsound horses is an issue, "We can't run from."
"Everyone knows that this could be them," Ritvo told The Paulick Report. "The Ringling Brothers Circus doesn't exist any more. SeaWorld has had to change. We have to come together and put strong protocols in place. ... There were things that were acceptable when I was an 18-year-old kid that aren't acceptable any more."
Hancock, whose grandfather founded the renowned Claiborne Farm in 1910, says veterinarians, drug companies and Churchill Downs have posed the primary obstacles to meaningful change.
“None of our powerful politicians in the state except for Andy (Barr) support this (bill) and the reason is because of Churchill Downs,” he said. “They’ve been against it for a number of reasons.”
Churchill Downs President Kevin Flanery issued a statement Thursday afternoon that stopped short of endorsing the proposed reforms, but indicated a willingness to change by consensus.
“Integrity and maximizing the health and safety of our equine athletes are issues that go right to the core of everything we do at Churchill Downs," Flanery said. "We’re supportive of any improvements for horse racing that have broad support through collaboration with other industry leaders.”
The bill submitted Thursday would ban the use of all medications within 24 hours of a race, develop a standardized list of permitted and prohibited substances, establish a regulatory organization responsible for implementing an anti-doping program and require additional disclosure to breeding stock purchasers and the betting public.
“We think this bill would materially improve the safety of the sport, whether these incidents had happened or not,” Barr said Thursday afternoon. “Obviously, we’re all concerned. Everybody’s concerned about what’s gone on at Santa Anita. ...
“Our bill would make the sport safer. We’re very confident about that.”
Opposition to the bill centers on third-party regulation and restrictions on the use of Lasix, a drug designed to prevent bleeding that also acts as a diuretic. Alan Foreman, chairman of the Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association, testified last June that a move to eliminate Lasix would “force owners out of the business.”
“It's going to force, at horse sales that go on in many states throughout the country, a disclaimer that'll have to be put on horses that are sold that they are potential bleeders,” Foreman said, “... that they will not be able to treat that horse for racing, and that horse may not be able to race.
“Can you envision buying an automobile or product, where you're told at the time of the sale, that this product may have a problem and you're not going to be able to fix it in a way that you can use it? Are you going to buy that product?”
Those in favor of the bill, which includes Keeneland, the Breeders’ Cup and the Jockey Club, point to the lower equine fatality rates in countries with stricter drug policies and the inconsistent standards across various states.
“Different groups have raised different issues,” Barr said. “In my view, uniformity is very good for racetracks. The new generation of fans that are tech-savvy, they want uniformity. We need one set of rules for all of those racetracks.”
Source: Courier Journal