Bid to ban race-day doping divides horse-rich Kentucky

West Coast is led onto the track for the 12th race at the Pegasus World Cup Invitational horse race, at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla.
West Coast is led onto the track for the 12th race at the Pegasus World Cup Invitational horse race, at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla. AP

Mint juleps, fancy hats, two minutes of exciting racing...and....medication for the horses?

Not a problem, say the folks who run Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Actually, there is a problem, counter Washington lawmakers representing areas that host the other two legs of racing's fabled Triple Crown.

The three races showcasing the nation's best 3-year-old thoroughbreds are the crown jewels of the racing industry. A push to bar race-day doping has the backing of the owners of Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course, which hosts the Preakness May 19, and New York's Belmont Park, where the Belmont Stakes will be run June 9.

But Kentucky's Churchill Downs, which holds the first leg of the race, the Run for the Roses, on May 5, is withholding support. So is most of the state's congressional delegation, though one of the state’s own, Rep. Andy Barr, has twice introduced the legislation.

Barr, a Kentucky Republican, and his Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Paul Tonko of New York, who together co-chair the Congressional Horse Caucus, have more than 100 co-sponsors for the legislation.

They include, notably for a divisive Congress, polar opposites such as Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla, an outspoken House conservative, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, whose district includes Gulfstream Park.

They don’t include Kentucky Republican Reps. James Comer, Brett Guthrie, Thomas Massie or Harold Rogers or Democrat John Yarmuth.

There is no Senate companion legislation, and supporters say Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is neutral on the bill.

“If the Leader comments, I will pass it on,” said Robert Steurer, a spokesman for McConnell, told McClatchy.

The legislation, which would create a federal authority and uniform standards for drug use, would replace what Barr said are “inconsistent rules” across 38 different racing jurisdictions. It would also prohibit trainers from administering drugs on race days, bringing the U.S. in line with its horse racing counterparts in Europe, Dubai and Hong Kong.

“The reputation of American horse racing is really contingent on us replacing this diverse patchwork of conflicting and inconsistent rules governing medication policies with uniformity,” said Barr, who represents the Lexington area, a stronghold of horse owners and breeders.

“We want people to know they are betting on the quality of the athlete and jockey and pedigree, not what medication they are using or are not using,” Barr said.

The Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, which is supporting the legislation, hopes to have a Senate bill introduced before the Kentucky Derby.

All but two of New York state’s 27 members of Congress are co-sponsors of the House version, and it has the support of the New York Racing Association, the non-profit that runs three of the state’s largest thoroughbred tracks including Belmont Park.

There’s also considerable support from the California and Florida congressional delegations, where the Stronach Group owns the Santa Anita racetrack north of Los Angeles and Gulfstream Park, north of Miami. Stronach, which enthusiastically backs the measure, also owns the Maryland Jockey Club, which includes the Pimlico track.

The bill has yet to have a hearing and Churchill Downs’ refusal to sign onto the legislation has most of Kentucky's delegation holding back, say advocates.

"A lot of our Kentucky representatives are looking to Churchill Downs to see where they stand on the issue, and currently they seem to be happy with the status quo," said Staci Hancock, who along with her husband, Arthur, and other owners and breeders founded the Water Hay Oats Alliance in 2012 to push for an end to race-day doping.

Churchill Downs officials did not return repeated requests for comment. Other opponents, including the Lexington-based Association of Racing Commissioners International, say regulators already bar performance-enhancing drugs during races.

“Enacting the Barr proposal would remove involvement of the independent regulatory agencies that are publicly accountable and transparent who adhere to public ethics laws and other requirements that safeguard due process and ensure that policy is made in public and not on a whim,” said Ed Martin, the group’s president.

There’s also unease with involving the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the independent, non-profit that investigates sports doping. Under the legislation, the agency would play a leading role in developing a “Horse Racing Anti-doping and Medication Control Authority,” which would be governed by a board that includes the agency’s chief executive officer.

A Yarmuth spokesman said the congressman, who represents the Louisville area, supports the bill’s intent, “but does have concerns about the ability of the USADA, an already underfunded agency with no expertise or experience in horse racing, to effectively regulate it.”

Yarmuth will “continue to meet with stakeholders to address those concerns,” should the legislation make it out of committee, said spokesman Christopher Schuler.

Many trainers are opposed to the legislation and a group that represents veterinarians who treat racehorses opposed the introduction of Barr’s bill, largely because it includes a race-day ban on furosemide, known as Lasix — a diuretic now legal to administer on race day in the U.S. and Canada, but banned in most major racing countries.

The use of Lasix has long divided the horse racing community. Horse owners and breeders contend that its use can mask illness and that it adversely affects global demand for North American horses. Supporters say it’s critical to prevent damage to the racing horses’ lungs caused by bleeding during exertion.

Barr does have a former Kentucky lawmaker on board. Rep. Ed Whitfield, who resigned in 2016, joined the Water Hay Oats Alliance, and is pushing for a hearing on the legislation.

Whitfield said he chaired a congressional hearing a decade ago on the use of steroids in horse racing at which the late Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg memorably likened doping in the industry to “chemical warfare on the tracks.”

“We want our horses to run and compete with their natural abilities, not with performance enhancing drugs,” Whitfield said.

In the 145 years of the Run for the Roses, three of the biggest surprise winners have come in the past 17 years.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark