AFTER CALIFORNIA HORSE RACING BOARD REPORT ON SANTA ANITA, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE JUDY CHU CALLS FOR STRONGER PROTECTIONS FOR HORSES
On Monday, the California Horse Racing Board released their annual report on horse racing in California for the 2019 calendar year. The report showed that nearly 90% of fatalities in 2019 were associated with pre-existing, undetected stress fractures. It also found that the dirt track at Santa Anita was responsible for four times as many fatalities as the turf track, despite holding only 30% more races. Among the report’s recommendations for curbing horse deaths are better veterinary record keeping, stricter regulations on the use of all medications, use of diagnostic imaging before a race, and a prohibition on racing on tracks deemed to be unsafe due to weather conditions, like the dirt track at Santa Anita. Rep. Judy Chu (CA-27), who represents Santa Anita, issued the following statement:
Finally, we cannot rely on a patchwork of regulations to solve this problem. Regulations recommended by the CHRB could save lives for horses outside of California as well, but because we lack a federal body to oversee horse racing, each state is free to set their own standards, contributing to America’s higher rate of horse deaths compared to other countries. That is why I was encouraged by last week’s hearing for H.R. 1754, the Horseracing Integrity Act in the Energy and Commerce Committee. This legislation, which would establish a federal Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority to standardize safety and medication standards across the United States, is needed more than ever.”
The Horseracing Integrity Act (H.R. 1754), introduced last year by Congressional Horse Caucus co-chairs Representatives Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Andy Barr (R-KY), has officially received formal endorsement by a majority of the U.S. House of Representatives, with 226 Members now cosponsoring the legislation. This bipartisan bill authorizes creation of a non-governmental anti-doping authority governed by representatives of all major constituencies of the industry and responsible for implementing a national, uniform medication program throughout the sport.
“After years working side by side with my friend Congressman Andy Barr to move this legislation forward, I am deeply gratified that our bill to strengthen America’s horseracing industry and elevate the health and safety of our equine athletes is finally getting its due support,” Tonko remarked. “Establishing a single, national approach to medication testing with strong independent oversight and enforcement will help ensure the long-term viability of this sport of kings. The stakes for this legislation are high, especially in regions like ours with historic ties to an industry that contributes billions of dollars and supports thousands of jobs in the New York economy each year, much of it at and around our legendary Saratoga Race Course.”
“The bipartisan support we have garnered for this legislation demonstrates the urgency of needed reforms in the horseracing industry,” said Congressman Barr. “At the end of the day, my efforts are about ensuring the safety of our equine athletes and the integrity of the sport. I will continue to educate my colleagues on the need for transparency and standardization in horse racing and build on this momentum to fight for Kentucky’s signature industry.”
The U.S. horseracing industry exists today under a diverse patchwork of conflicting and inconsistent rules governing medication policies and practices across 38 different racing jurisdictions. Lack of uniformity in the rules of horseracing has impaired interstate commerce and undermined the public confidence in the sport. The Horseracing Integrity Act responds by setting a level playing field for fair competition within and across state lines, assuring full and fair disclosure of information to purchasers of breeding stock and to the wagering public, and providing for the safety and welfare of horses and jockeys, reforms expected to raise the popularity, credibility and international competitiveness of the U.S. horse racing industry.
Tonko and Barr have introduced a version of this legislation since 2015. Companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate and currently has 23 cosponsors.
After a tumultuous year in which dozens of horses died at the fabled Santa Anita Park, officials put in place a slew of groundbreaking reforms before the start of the 2019 fall meeting: tough new drug restrictions, the addition of four more veterinarians to oversee the horses, new rules on when horses could be trained and when they had to be stabled at the park before a race. Horses were already being blood-tested before races for evidence of “milkshaking”— in which a horse is given the performance enhancing drug sodium bicarbonate through a tube up the nose. Also, horses are randomly drug-tested after races.
It was the surge in deaths over a few weeks at the park earlier this year that raised an alarm at the track and a public outcry that put the park and the sport in general under an extraordinary scrutiny — and rightly so. That alarm led to the reforms now in place.
According to statistics compiled by the Jockey Club, of the roughly 49,000 thoroughbred horses that raced last year, 493 suffered racing fatalities. That doesn’t include training deaths. The average death per start — a start occurs each time a horse begins a race — in the U.S. last year was 1.68 deaths per 1,000 starts. Santa Anita last year was above average with 2.04 deaths per 1,000 starts. But other parks had worse records.
The idea is to institute reforms that bring down fatalities dramatically. Death should not be a regular or acceptable byproduct of horse racing. Santa Anita appears to be working hard on this. In addition to the reforms above, new diagnostic tools — a standing MRI machine and a PET scanner — should be in place by the start of the next racing season at the end of December.
But even more can and should be done. Advocates from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have urged Santa Anita to put in a CT scanner that can take images of all four legs of a horse at once. Park veterinarians say they are working on finding the right one. The more varied diagnostic tools the park has, says Santa Anita’s chief veterinary officer, Dionne Benson, the better they can evaluate the condition of horses before they’re cleared to race.
Santa Anita appears to be working hard on this. In addition to the reforms above, new diagnostic tools — a standing MRI machine and a PET scanner — should be in place by the start of the next racing season at the end of December. But even more can and should be done.
The park should also put in a place a central pharmacy from which all drugs would be obtained. Benson supports this as a way to monitor all the drugs given to horses during the days or weeks that they are at Santa Anita. (The track would enforce this through its on-site investigators and the hundreds of cameras in place.) And the park should seriously consider replacing its dirt track with a synthetic track. The park did this once before and took it out. It can be difficult to maintain but there is evidence that there are fewer fatalities on it. And the park has to continue to police trainers. The park has already banished trainers whose horses have suffered disproportionate fatalities.
Meanwhile, Congress should pass the Horseracing Integrity Act, creating an independent horse-racing authority to set nationwide rules.
The troubling thing is that even experts such as Benson are stumped by what is causing the recent deaths at Santa Anita and elsewhere. It would help if Benson had the necropsies of all the horses. The L.A. district attorney’s office set up a task force to investigate the deaths six months ago and the results are still not public nor does the office have a time frame for when they will be released. Benson says her goal is “safe horse racing with zero fatalities,” but she acknowledges how difficult it will be to get to that.
Hopefully, even more changes at the park will get Santa Anita closer. If it can’t, and if no racing park in the United States can, then the inescapable question for elected officials and the public in California and across the nation is: Do we want to continue a sport — even a historic and beloved sport — in which horses’ lives are routinely sacrificed so that people can be entertained?
Source: Los Angeles Times Editorial Board
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