WASHINGTON — The practice of injecting racehorses with steroids to keep them on their feet during the weeks before high-stakes competitions met tough scrutiny at a congressional hearing Wednesday.
Critics say the animals are exploited through the harmful use of anabolic steroids to boost stamina and power and to mask fatigue. Some human athletes illegally abuse the drugs for the same purposes, but the practice is legal in horse racing, and steroids often are used for medicinal purposes when a horse falls ill or is injured.
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association and other groups have proposed a ban on steroid use in the month before a race to give horses time to get the drugs out of their systems.
If it's adopted nationally, the rule would take effect by December and would be in place for next year's Kentucky Derby — a move that supporters such as Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield, the ranking Republican on the House of Representatives subcommittee that held Wednesday's hearing, said will help ensure better sportsmanship in horse racing.
"It's no longer my horse is better than yours; it's my vet is better than yours," Whitfield said.
Whitfield questioned the industry's nearly three-decade delay in adopting more stringent and uniform drug rules. States set their own horse racing regulations — including drug testing policies — and Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington have adopted the new guidelines. Kentucky, Maryland and Texas are among other states that are expected to support the model rule.
Opponents of a blanket ban point out that, unlike the use of performance enhancing drugs in people, there's no proof that such chemicals enable horses to run faster. Steroids often are used to help the animals recover from abdominal and respiratory illnesses.
Whitfield told the House panel that the horse racing industry must stop lagging behind other professional sports when it comes to drug testing.
It is "time to call in the federal cavalry and send it chasing into your stables with guns blazing to clean up this sport," Whitfield said.
The industry's failure to reform the practice reflects the sport's unwillingness to look at "the unpleasant part of this business," he said.
The nation's horse racing regulatory bodies are working to address these issues, Alexander Waldrop, the president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, told the House panel.
"In 2007, nearly 107,000 U.S. horses made 918,000 starts in 116,000 races," Waldrop said. "Our industry tested at least one horse from every one of those races. We screen for up to 200 drugs in one sample."
Waldrop said the horse racing industry spends between $30 million and $35 million annually on equine drug testing and almost $1.4 million on research and development into new tests and testing procedures.
When Whitfield asked how many horses die on the racetrack, Waldrop was unable to provide a figure.
"Herein lies the secret of horse racing: The sport has some of the most rigorous drug testing of any sport, with one exception, anabolic steroids, which have largely been ignored," said Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board.