WASHINGTON — Rick Dutrow, trainer of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, didn't notify a congressional committee that he wouldn't attend Thursday's hearing on drugs and racing as planned.
Top Thoroughbred breeders, owners, trainers, and veterinary experts spoke out on medication and racehorse injuries, many arguing for a central governing body to enforce uniform rules.
"We had expected Rick Dutrow. I'd like to note the empty place. Apparently Mr. Dutrow is too ill to travel to D.C.," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who is chairing the hearing. "Unfortunately, Mr. Dutrow never informed the committee of his illness." She said Dutrow had not responded to numerous attempts to contact him by committee staff.
The hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on commerce, trade and public protection was prompted in part by the recent controversy over steroids and by the fatal breakdown in the Kentucky Derby of second-place finisher Eight Belles. Shortly after crossing the finish line, the filly broke both front legs and was euthanized on the track. Necropsy results showed that Eight Belles had not been given steroids.
But Big Brown was on steroids, and Dutrow was to have been one of the star witnesses at Thursday's hearing. Lawmakers wanted to question him about why he gives all his horses the steroid Winstrol once a month. Dutrow said he gave Big Brown the drug before his Kentucky Derby win. Big Brown's slump in the Belmont -- the horse finished last -- led to conjectures that his performance was poor because he hadn't gotten his monthly shot.
In written testimony submitted to the committee, Dutrow said: "I also hope that I was not asked here because of some of the problems I have had in the past. I hope your staff people were sincere in inviting me because they valued my insight. I want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem."
"People have asked me why I do it," Dutrow said of giving his horses steroids. "It helps the horses eat better. Their coats brighten. They're more alert. It helps them train."
He also acknowledged that his barn was penalized five years ago when traces of the prohibited drug mepivicane turned up in one of his horses. He was suspended and fined. At the time, he denied using it and said he didn’t know how it happened.
Even without Dutrow, the committee tackled the issue of drugs and the need for a central governing body.
Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, asked Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg whether drug problems were widespread.
"It’s like chemical warfare," said Van Berg, who is best known for training Alysheba.
The panel, including Stone Farm owner Arthur Hancock and Curlin owner Jess Jackson, all agreed that performance-enhancing drugs, including steroids, should be eliminated from racing.
"If you stop the medication, the unsound horses will eliminate themselves," Van Berg said.
But Alan Marzelli, president and chief operating officer of The Jockey Club, said he favors letting the industry continue its reforms, such as those his organization announced Tuesday: a ban on steroids, a ban on "toe grab" traction devices on front horseshoes and restrictions on whips.
Whitfield said the industry has promised change before. "You can only recommend," he said. "Do you have the power to put this into effect?"
Marzelli said the group has "the power of persuasion" and consensus.
"I think your record would reflect you lack even that power," Whitfield responded. "I think it's been clearly demonstrated that the NTRA (National Thoroughbred Racing Association) and the Jockey Club do not have the authority."
Hancock said most industry groups are well-meaning but pull in different directions. Self-governance will not be enough. "After hundreds of meetings and 28 years (since the last federal effort to regulate racing drugs), there just doesn’t seem to be any urgency," Hancock said.
Whitfield has suggested using the Interstate Horseracing Act, which regulates simulcasting, to force states to enact minimum drug, testing and safety standards. Simulcasting accounts for 90 percent of the $15 billion wagered annually on thoroughbred racing. States that don’t comply wouldn’t be able to enter that market.
When asked by Schakowsky whether the IHA should be used to force uniformity, only Marzelli was completely against it.
"As a last resort," said Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board.
"I can’t think of any other stick that would work," ESPN analyst Randy Moss said.
Shapiro said that pharmacological advances have hurt racing rather than protect the horse, and produced a drop in the number of starts per horse. The drugs are "masking infirmities, and problems in the breed are being perpetuated," Shapiro said. "There has to be a central body regulating."
Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who represents the horse country around Ocala, said, "I can see why Mr. Dutrow perhaps didn’t show up."
Stearns indicated that a second hearing is planned and that legislation on forming a central authority is likely "to help you get started on this."
The second panel of mostly veterinary experts testified about the effects medication is having on the racehorses.
Dr. Lawrence Soma of the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center said that the only drug still legally given in all states on race day — furosemide (known as Lasix or Salix) — has not been shown to stop bleeding in the lungs, the supposed medical reason for its administration. However, "it improves the times of racehorses," Soma said.
The use of medications and the rise in injuries appear to be linked, the vets said.
"There's no question we've got unacceptable rates of injury in the U.S.," said Dr. Wayne McIlwraith of Colorado State University.
Allie Conrad, executive director of CANTER Mid Atlantic, an organization that helps injured racehorses, either through retirement and rehabilitation or euthanization, testified that many go through a "terrible, terrible withdrawal period" when drugs are stopped. Conrad said many have been injected with both legal and illegal drugs.
But the racing industry does not want to cede control. "Recently this industry has made great strides toward uniformity at the national level. This industry is no longer a rudderless ship. I stress that the last thing this industry needs is another level of regulation," testified Alex Waldrop, CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
Waldrop said reforms on steroids and other safety issues will be in place by the end of the year. "We are all responsible," Waldrop said. "We let this go on too long."
Read the Lexington Herald-Leader's horse racing blog at kentucky.com