Proposed Legislation Seeks to End Rash of Racehorse Deaths

AP Photo/Brian Bohannon

A surge in the number of racehorse deaths in recent months was the focus of hearing in Congress this week, with representatives from the racing industry and animal advocates testifying about whether a federal law could help protect horses and riders and prevent future deaths.

The statistics about horses “breaking down” while training or racing are staggering. In 2018 alone, almost 500 Thoroughbred racehorses died as a result of racing injuries in the United States, according to background provided by the House Energy and Commerce Committee Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, which held the hearing. 

A string of deaths at California’s Santa Anita Park has put renewed focus on horse and rider safety, with 56 horses suffering fatal injuries at the track between July of 2018 and November of 2019. Five horses have already died at Santa Anita this year, according to the committee.

The debate about the Horseracing Integrity Act centered on the regulation of racing in the United States. The bill would “improve the integrity and safety of horseracing by requiring a uniform anti-doping and medication control program to be developed and enforced by an independent Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority.”

The bill’s text stated:

Uniform adoption of national anti-doping and medication control standards for horseracing in the United States will promote interstate commerce, encourage fair competition and a level playing field, assure full and fair disclosure of information to pur- chasers of breeding stock and to the wagering public, will improve the marketplace for domestic and international sales of United States horses, will provide a platform for consistency with all major international horseracing standards, address growing domestic concerns over disparities with international rules, and provide for the safety and welfare of horses and jockeys.

The committee provided background on what the racing industry has done to respond to the deaths:

In March 2019, Santa Anita announced a series of changes to improve horse safety, including a “zero tolerance” policy for race day use of many medications. Despite this policy change, horse deaths continue to occur, including five horses deaths already this year. An inquiry by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office concluded that there was no criminal wrongdoing connected to the deaths, but offered a series of recommendations to improve safety at California racetracks.

Use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and therapeutic medications may contribute to horseracing deaths. The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, a group of 23 major horseracing industry stakeholders responsible for authorizing research related to equine medication and testing, has published thirty approved medications for racehorses, including sedatives, pain killers, and muscle relaxants. Some equine trainers and veterinarians assert that these medications improve the health and welfare of the horse, making the sport safer. Others claim that these drugs can harm the long-term health of the horse and mask minor ailments that could become catastrophic injuries that ultimately lead to death.

Witnesses disagreed about whether the bill would be successful in solving the problem.

Dr. Kathleen M. Anderson, an equine veterinarian for 34 years who is licensed in several state, did not support the legislation as written.

“As a practicing veterinarian, I have concerns that eliminating furosemide, the only allowed race-day medication, will not improve the safety and welfare of the racehorse,” Anderson said in her prepared remarks. “There is substantial documented science behind the safe and efficacious use of furosemide to prevent Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage, a respiratory condition common in elite athletes, including human athletes.

“EIPH can adversely impact racehorses not only in their current careers, but also in their second careers,” Anderson said. “Studies done in the early 1980s in Hong Kong by an international team of veterinarians examined the lungs of deceased racehorses to explore the extent of change in the lung tissue with EIPH which provided strong physical evidence for the decision, made 40 years ago, to allow the administration of furosemide on race day based on what was best for the health of the racehorse.

“In my opinion, HR1754 as written does not address and will not solve racing’s primary need to reduce equine fatalities,” Anderson said.

A retired jockey who testified disagreed with Anderson.

“I support H.R. 1754 because horseracing, as a sport, has been in a serious decline for years and something must be done to curb this trend. I believe one of the reasons for this decline is the lack of public confidence in our product,” Christopher J. McCarron said in his prepared remarks.

“Over the past few decades, medication violations – I mean by this, horses testing positive for banned substances and for non-banned substances in excess of permitted amounts – have escalated to the point of being unacceptable to our patrons and participants alike,” McCarron said. “When I began my career in Maryland in 1974, the average number of annual starts was approximately 14. Today the average number of career starts is 11.”

McCarron said the deaths are hurting the sport.

“Further, there are far too many horses becoming injured to the point where their careers come to an early end,” McCarron said. “To borrow and adapt an old adage, ‘medications don’t kill horses, improper use of medications kill horses,’ i.e., racing horses that would be better served by much-needed rest. Instead of giving the animal the rest it needs, a trainer relies on his/her veterinarian to administer a medication to mask pain by reducing inflammation caused by an injury. I can tell you this for sure. Horses’ careers would last much longer if this practice was less prevalent.”

One witness, while supportive of the legislation if it would help animals, said the deaths could lead to the sport being banned altogether.

“The public sentiment is very rapidly shifting from a desire to end doping to concerns about the very existence of the sport itself,” Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action, said at the hearing.If Congress fails to pass the Horseracing Integrity Act, and obstructionists within the industry continue to hinder the legislation, then those who demand horseracing be brought to an end will prevail.”

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