It was a shock when a “freakish injury,” as his trainer Doug O’Neill called it, forced I’ll Have Another to withdraw the day before the running of the Belmont Stakes—the last remaining race between the horse and the sport’s elusive Triple Crown. But veterinarian records submitted by O’Neill, who had a history of doping violations, showed that the thoroughbred had chronic leg issues that had been masked in past races by a regimen of painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs.
It was in the aftermath of I’ll Have Another’s high-profile scratch, and the subsequent New York Times report about his history of injuries, that the Senate Commerce Thursday held a hearing on “Medication and Performance Enhancing Drugs in Horse Racing,” intended in part to consider legislation to create national regulation of the sport.
There are relatively few restrictions on drugs in horse racing, in part because the sport lacks a broad oversight agency to regulate industry practices, police offenders, and levy fines, and in part because the athletes are animals. Most regulation falls to individual state boards that issue a mosaic of sometimes conflicting rules on how a horse should be raised, run, and tested.
Horse racing was once the nation’s top sport, but many owners and track executives say the broader public lost interest when it became less credible for gamblers and fans than better-regulated sports, such as baseball and football, which have both been subject to Congressional scrutiny over the past few years. Due to the rigors a horse is put through each race, the primary season is also a cursory five weeks, stunting development of winners who often end up being sold to stud farms and put out to pasture to avoid risking future injury.
But despite its declining fan base, the sport is big enough for Congress to notice. Racing has grown to a $10 billion annual industry, accounting for nearly 400,000 jobs—with much of that growth the result of a favorable federal policy from 1978 that allowed betting on the sport across state lines. When Congress amended the policy in 2006 to prohibit all online gambling, heavy lobby pressure from the industry helped carve out a special exemption for horse racing. The sport has also benefitted from so-called “racinos” in several states that have converted race tracks into casinos, or a combined race track and casino, that several states have used as a way to expand gambling, and that require the more-popular and —profitable casino operations to effectively subsidize the racing purses.
The apparent increase in horse-doping led the Senate committee to look in on whether the industry warrants its exception on the online gambling ban. “Time and again, Congress has passed legislation to expand gambling on horse racing,” New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall said at a Congressional hearing on performance-enhancing drugs on Thursday. “Now it’s time to end the abuse. It’s time to restore integrity to this sport.”
The problem is prolific. Because of the betting attention focused on winning horses as purses in smaller races have shot up thanks to the casino money now poured into them, horses are often run beyond their natural capacity.
According to a New York Times investigation, racing horses have been found by state agencies to have banned drugs in their bodies 3,800 times since 2009. Only a small fraction of horses are tested in the first place, so the number using banned substances would presumably be even larger. Also since 2009, more than 6,600 horses developed injuries—a rate far higher than horses would experience on ranches or in the wild.
That’s because performing enhancing drugs for horses, unlike steroids for humans, can quickly deteriorate a horse’s body. Two of the more common substances—phenylbuterol and demorphine (the key ingredient in cobra venom)—act as painkillers that mask a horse’s nervous system so that it can run harder and feel little pain. When a horse is unable to heed bodily warnings to slow down, injuries become much more common and serious.
Horse owners who play by the rules have asked the federal government to intervene, proposing that Congress create a blanket national system with one set of rules to test horses for unfair substances. “Horse racing is in crisis,” said Barry Irwin, CEO of Team Valor International, which breeds and races horses, including one named Animal Kingdom that won the Kentucky Derby in 2011. “But before we can offer a race day program worthy of public trust, steps need to be taken to improve the integrity of the game. The federal government can help.”
Udall and Rep. Ed Whitfield have introduced and amassed support for a law called the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act, which would require independent labs to test horses and expel from the sport horses found to have unfair substances in their blood on race day, as well as their owners and trainers. Key opposition has come from state regulating agencies and local groups, who claim that states have a right to set their own rules for races within their borders.
The reforms are likely to pass Congress, but without addressing the wide reach of betting across state lines, the sport is likely to become ever-more competitive and lucrative. That, in turn, is expected to make owners ever hungrier for large payouts.
After I’ll Have Another ended his racing career last summer, stud farms offered bids for the right to the victor’s genes to create future competitors. A Japanese breeder claimed him for $10 million.