House approves bill to combat doping in horse racing

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Jockey John Velazquez riding Authentic, wins the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

WASHINGTON – The House approved a bill Tuesday to create national medication and safety standards for the horse racing industry as lawmakers move to clamp down on use of performance-enhancing drugs that can lead to horse injuries and deaths.

The “Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act” comes after a series of doping scandals and a rash of horse fatalities in recent years. More than two dozen people were charged in March in what authorities described as a widespread international scheme to drug horses to make them run faster.

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Jason Servis, whose champion horse Maximum Security crossed the finish line first at the 2019 Kentucky Derby before being disqualified for interference, was among those charged.

The Democrat-controlled House approved the bill by voice vote, sending it to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has co-sponsored similar legislation. McConnell's home state of Kentucky boasts some of the country’s top breeding outfits and Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the fabled Triple Crown. Co-sponsors include senior Democrats from California and New York, which also have top racetracks and breeding operations.

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., co-sponsored the House bill, calling it an overdue step to help restore public trust in the sport and "put it on a path to a long and vital future.''

"Horse racing has long been woven into the fabric of American culture,'' Tonko said during House debate, citing storied names such as Secretariat and Man o' War that “stir the imagination of racing fans” around the world.

Racing also serves as a major economic driver in many parts of the country, including New York, said Tonko, whose district includes the well-known Saratoga Race Course.

Even so, the sport in recent years has seen "the devastating results that can occur when these equine athletes are pushed beyond their limits,'' Tonko said.

Often aided by medications that can mask underlying health issues, the same tragic story “has played out countless times across the country,” he said, citing a patchwork of medical and safety regulations that are uneven and often unenforced.

The House bill would empower an independent Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority to set uniform, national standards for medication, track safety and testing of horses for performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs.

Tonko called the bill "a win for the industry, sports fans and equine athletes,'' adding that it would put horses at their rightful place as the center of racing.

The legislation is supported by a range of groups, including The Jockey Club, the New York Racing Association and the Humane Society of the United States.

“Horse racing is experiencing the most profound crisis in the long history of the sport. To emerge stronger, we must act decisively to protect the horses who are the stars of the show,″ said Bob Baffert, a veteran trainer whose horse, Authentic, won this year's Kentucky Derby.

"It is time for the horse-racing industry to unite in support of a national anti-doping regulatory system," Baffert wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post. “Nothing else will restore the confidence of fans, gamblers and the general public.”

The House bill will "modernize horse racing in the U.S., put the welfare of the horses at the center of the enterprise and hold the industry to a higher standard that mirrors the rest of the world,” said Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, an advocacy group.

Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said an average of at least eight horses die at the races every week. "Congressional intervention is imperative to protect these magnificent animals,'' she said.

McConnell said earlier this month that he hopes to win passage of the legislation by the end of the year.

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