The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA), H.R. 1754, passed the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday following nearly six years of futile attempts.
The bill passed the House on a voice vote with no apparent opposition in a rare display of bipartisan cooperation.
Co-sponsored by Representatives Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Andy Barr (R-KY), the legislation would create the Horseracing and Anti-Doping Medication Control Authority to oversee the sport’s medication and drug testing policies at the Federal level. It would be the first such national regulatory authority in the U.S. Presently, such regulations and policies are monitored and enforced by each of the nation’s 38 separate racing authorities that are home to racetracks.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced his intention in August to introduce similar legislation in the Senate, adding an oversight of racetrack surfaces provision. McConnell has said bipartisan support for some version of the bill makes its quick Senate passage likely before the Nov. 3 elections, when the House and some Senate members face re-election, or shortly after in a lame-duck session.
“We are finally poised to cross the finish line on this historic reform,” said Tonko following the vote.
Tonko’s district includes Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York. Barr’s district includes Keeneland Racecourse as well as several Thoroughbred farms throughout Central Kentucky. Both Congress members were lauded during Tuesday’s House session before the voice vote for their years-long effort to craft and pass some form of this legislation.
The legislation now goes for consideration to the Senate as S. 4547. The bill was introduced by McConnell and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
Support for the legislation was aided by an unusual coalition that included The Jockey Club, several prominent trainers, racetrack owners and Thoroughbred associations and animal welfare groups.
Two added features of the McConnell bill include oversight of racetrack safety and, notably, the gradual introduction of a ban on the race-day use of Lasix by state authorities, each of which would opt-in to such an approach
The addition of the racetrack safety oversight provision is in response to a troubling spate of Thoroughbred racehorse injuries and deaths over the past two years. The fatalities gained worldwide attention, in particular those at California’s Santa Anita Park, where breakdowns took the lives of over 30 horses, an average of one per week, during the 2018–19 winter meet.
Lasix, along with Salix, trade names for the diuretic furosemide, is a controversial drug currently used by most U.S. trainers as an anti-bleeding medication. Some contend it masks a genetic propensity to bleeding from micro-cuts in a horse’s lungs caused by the pressure of other organs during racing.
Furosemide is considered a performance enhancing drug (PED) in Europe, where it is banned. That ban extends to other countries including the seven United Arab Emirates, which includes Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Saudi Arabia and other nations completely ban some drugs and tightly regulate others.
The opt-in compromise on the phased approach was apparently necessary to ensure support from all racing jurisdictions and passage of the legislation.
“We have all seen the devastating results that can occur when these equine athletes are pushed beyond their limits, often aided by medications that can mask underlying health issues,” Tonko said. “This same story has played out countless times across the country because the current medication reforms have been implemented unevenly, leaving a patchwork system in place that has created wide disparity in the effectiveness of medication testing, enforcement and racetrack safety standards. That patchwork system simply doesn’t work.
“This national approach brings great hope to the integrity of this great industry,” Tonko continued. “If horseracing is to thrive as an industry and once again capture the public’s imagination, we must do better.”
Tonko added the financial contributions of the sport have been at risk. Horseracing contributes $5 billion annually to the New York state economy and has an estimated economic impact of over $26 billion nationwide.
Barr noted that horseracing may be Kentucky’s signature sport, but it has a nationwide impact of nearly a million jobs. Those jobs are threatened in the absence of reform that includes uniformity in the rules regarding medication.
“The Thoroughbred horseracing industry labors under a patchwork of conflicting and inconsistent state-based rules governing prohibited substances, lab accreditation, testing, and penalties for violations,” Barr said. “This lack of uniformity has impeded interstate commerce. It has compromised the international competitiveness of the industry. It has undermined public confidence in the safety and integrity of the sport.”
As a conservative legislator in a largely conservative state, Barr stressed he did not see the legislation as “more regulation” but rather “more efficient regulation.”
“It is about creating a single nationwide set of rules that will result in smarter, more effective, and streamlined regulation for the industry,” Barr explained. “The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act will remedy the lack of uniformity.”
McConnell lauded House passage of the bill, the first legislation of its kind to pass the lower house of Congress.
“Our bipartisan legislation to recognize a national standard for Thoroughbred racing is receiving support from all corners. Now, it’s earned the approval of the House,” McConnell said. “Today’s vote was another important step toward protecting our beloved sport for the horses, jockeys, trainers, breeders, and fans.”
Overwhelming industry support
Passage by the House earned swift approval by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), which commended Reps. Tonko and Barr in a statement.
Breeders’ Cup also issued a statement of support:
“This is an important step for much needed legislation that will help make racing safer for our athletes, both equine and human, and enhance the integrity of the sport that so many enjoy,” read the statement in part. “The Breeders’ Cup stands ready to do the necessary work to secure its passage in the Senate to make this important goal for our sport a reality.”
New York Racing Association (NYRA) president and CEO Dave O’Rourke issued a statement of support urging the Senate to quickly consider and pass the legislation. “Today’s bi-partisan vote leaves no doubt as to the importance of this legislation in securing the future of horseracing in the United States. NYRA urges the U.S. Senate to quickly consider and pass the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act.”
Renowned equine veterinary institutions Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital and Hagyard Equine Medical Institute joined in supporting the legislation, as did the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), the Thoroughbred Associations of New York and Kentucky and the (national) Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.
“Having our sport contested on a level playing field with the aid of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is especially meaningful to me,” said Barry Irwin of owner Team Valor International. “It’s something I’ve been promoting for more than 16 years.”
Irwin was among the first owners to recognize oversight of medication as essential to the wellbeing of racehorses and of the sport. Following the victory of Animal Kingdom in the 2013 Dubai World Cup, then-minority owner Irwin said in the post-race press conference he was most proud of the fact his horse won while racing Lasix-free, referring to the ban on the race-day drug in Dubai.
Owner/trainer Doug O’Neill made reference to his long support of the legislation and Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Association president Dan Metzger spoke for members of that group in applauding the introduction of regulatory uniformity throughout the industry.
Hall of Fame trainers Janet Elliot and Shug McGaughey were joined by two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher in praise of the bill.
All-time Churchill Downs win leader trainer Dale Romans issued an emotional statement that read in part: “My colleagues and I love this game and love our horses. We want them both to flourish with safety and integrity.”
Churchill Downs Incorporated also supports the legislation.
Speaking for the majority of trainers, McGaughey said: “I have had the good fortune to win the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, nine Breeders’ Cup races, four Travers stakes, and an Eclipse Award as the outstanding trainer in North America, so I know a little about U.S. horseracing. The Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act, which includes racetrack safety to further enhance the anti-doping program in the Act, will bring meaningful standards to help protect Thoroughbred racehorses and to safeguard the integrity and future of our sport.”
The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which would be responsible for enforcing the proposed reforms, acknowledged the importance of establishing uniformity throughout the sport.
“USADA is honored and humbled to carry out the anti-doping responsibilities detailed in the Act,” wrote CEO Travis T. Tygart. “As with Olympic sport, one set of rules, enforced independently and uniformly, is the bedrock of any meaningful anti-doping program.”
Animal welfare groups embrace the legislation
As collaborative as is the legislation, animal welfare groups are similarly supportive.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in its statement wrote: “We cannot continue to look the other way when a racehorse is severely injured or killed during training or a race. This measure will advance necessary reforms that will make or break horseracing in the United States.”
Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund wrote: “With 8.5 horses dying on average at the races every week, congressional intervention is imperative to protect these magnificent animals. We urge the Senate to swiftly pass this bill to end equine racehorse doping and increase track safety. As horses continue to race, we owe them every opportunity to cross the finish line healthy and intact for another day.”
“After nearly six years of pressing the House to pass anti-doping legislation we’re thrilled to see our efforts and advocacy have brought the elimination of doping in U.S. horseracing closer to the finish line,” wrote Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action. “We applaud Reps. Tonko and Barr for their tremendous leadership. H.R. 1754 puts the welfare of the horse at the center of the enterprise, and we call on the Senate to saddle up and swiftly pass this measure that will ensure the future of the sport.”
“The senseless loss of life occurring on racetracks must stop now,” wrote Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). “The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act would provide much-needed oversight and directly improve the welfare of racehorses in the United States.”
The grassroots Wheat Hay Oats Alliance (WHOA), long an opponent of all drugs in racing, joined the representatives of both political parties, stakeholders in the industry and other animal welfare groups in supporting the legislation and the reforms it will bring to the sport. “WHOA celebrates today’s victory for the health and wellbeing of the horse and the future of horse racing,” wrote managing member Staci Hancock.
“Nearly 30 federal indictments related to doping of racehorses have been made recently,” she continued. “The sport finds itself in a national crisis with an uncertain future. When legal therapeutic drugs are misused to mask pain, horses running with pre-existing injuries can be severely impaired, lose their lives and risk the lives of their jockeys. When illegal doping occurs, the race results are illegitimate and the American betting public is defrauded. For the sport to survive, the racing industry needs the reforms HISA provides.
“We await the day when the great sport of horseracing can rebuild its reputation with integrity and fair competition, protect the life and limb of our beloved horses and their jockeys, and reclaim racing’s place as one of America’s top spectator sports. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act can take us there,” concluded Hancock.