Sports

Racing groups introduce safety legislation

New legislation set to be introduced in Congress would dismantle the year-old national authority in charge of regulating safety and medication in horse racing and replace it with an organization backers say would allow for the safe treatment of horses and address concerns about doping.

The Racehorse Health and Safety Act, proposed by the North American Association of Racetrack Veterinarians and several horsemen’s associations, would include a national umbrella of rules for states to follow but give individual racing commissions more authority to enforce them. The bill was introduced Tuesday by Louisiana Republican Rep. Clay Higgins.

“While the federal government may have had good intentions in passing [the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act], in practice it ended up obstructing best practices in the horse business,” Higgins said. “I will not sit by and allow horses to be harmed while government crushes the families that have built their lives around the horse racing industry.”

The plan would essentially move oversight of the sport back to life before the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority was established. Critics say HISA goes too far with arbitrary medication rules and creating a Racehorse Health and Safety Organization would be a better way of regulating an industry that in recent years has largely acknowledged the need for reform.

“It takes into account horsemen’s input [and] veterinary science,” said Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “It allows for horses to be given proper care in the best interest of equine health and welfare. And it’s constitutional.”

HISA was the result of concerns over doping in the sport of kings, and the new rules replaced a patchwork system of standards in the 38 U.S. racing states that can vary by track and location. It was signed into law late in 2020 by then-President Donald Trump and began regulating safety measures last year and medication and anti-doping rules in May. Safety has been at the forefront for months after high-profile horse deaths at Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course.

HISA faced a series of legal challenges before going into place. Texas remains opposed and has for a year not been able to simulcast its races out of state as a result.

Hamelback and other stakeholders agree that there was change needed from the status quo but have criticized HISA and the Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit — its independent enforcement agency — for banning or limiting the withdrawal times for substances that they say have little or no impact on performance.

Russell Williams, president of the board of the U.S. Trotting Association that governs harness racing of standardbreds, said one faction of the industry favors no medication in horse racing — “basically have hay, oats and water.”

“The purpose of that is to prove to the public that there’s no doping going on,” Williams said. “The other side of that debate is science, sports medicine.”

Williams said the new proposal was put together by racetrack veterinarians before being reviewed by officials in thoroughbred, standardbred and quarter horse racing.

Hamelback of the NHBPA pointed to a recent provisional suspension of a trainer for the presence of an estrogen suppressant in a male gelding as an example of where the current rules go too far, noting medication makes horses less aggressive but doesn’t help them run faster.

“We agree with the premise of developing national uniform rules, national uniform laboratory procedures, testing, but our (set of rules) is going to be based on veterinary science, and veterinary research that leads to actual betterment of equine health and welfare,” he said.

Hamelback and Williams think there’s a better than 50/50 shot of the legislation becoming the new law of the land.

“I firmly believe that there are members of Congress who were instrumental in bringing HISA about, who are seeing all the trouble that HISA is causing, and they’re looking for a good way out,” Williams said. “And if we can convince them that RHSA is a better way — and that’s our whole mission — then I think it gets passed.”

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