Bill would pick agency for doping tests, increase penalties for cheats
“There is so much corruption in the industry. ... They make noises about changing, but they never do.” -- U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico
Congress annoyed many people when it held hearings in 2005 to investigate steroid use by big-league baseball players. Honesty and candor were missing in most testimony from players, but baseball seems cleaner since the federal inquiry exposed muscle-bound sluggers as cheats.
Now U.S. Sen. Tom Udall wants Congress to be even more aggressive in trying to stamp out performance-enhancing drugs in horseracing.
Udall, D-N.M., announced this week that he would sponsor a bill giving authority to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to police all races with simulcast wagering.
"There is so much corruption in the industry," Udall, above, said in an interview. "... They make noises about changing, but they never do."
He said putting testing in the hands of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency would clean up the sport and make it more interesting to the public and more successful economically.
"This is the organization that cleaned up bicycle racing with Lance Armstrong and the Olympics," Udall said.
Two Republican members of the House of Representatives, Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, are teaming with Udall on what they call the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. Though their bill was only in draft form, they made it public as millions of racing fans and casual observers prepared to watch the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
“The chronic abuse of racehorses with painkillers and other drugs is dangerous and just plain wrong,” Udall said. “Racing groups have promised drug reform for decades, but this bill would bring in real standards and enforcement from an organization with a proven record for cleaning up sports.”
Vince Mares, agency director for the New Mexico Racing Commission, publicly said last year that drugs were sullying horseracing. In a recent interview, Mares said he favored uniform testing standards, but declined comment on Udall’s bill until he saw it in final form.
"While we have the utmost respect for what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency does in human sport, we are concerned that the program they deploy permits the use of prohibited substances in competition upon receipt of a therapeutic-use exemption, something we do not allow in horseracing,” said Ed Martin, president of Racing Commissioners International. “If those standards were applied to horse racing, they would considerably weaken the current program, as well as undermine some of the reforms we are currently working to implement.”
Mares, in testimony before a committee of state legislators last October, said cheating was a sad fact of life at New Mexico’s five tracks. He asked for hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funding to help stop it.
“New Mexico has a drug problem,” Mares told the Legislative Finance Committee. “I've identified people who have doped horses and caused the deaths of horses.”
State legislators this year approved two bills to give Mares much of what he wanted to clean up the industry.
One adds money for increased drug-testing of horses, sometimes in random exams weeks before they are scheduled to run. Mares said the racing commission now has $370,000 a year for testing, but that will about double in 2014 with the legislative appropriation.
The second state bill increases civil penalties for violators of doping laws, and it allows for those cases to be turned over to the appropriate district attorney for possible criminal prosecutions. Both bills were sponsored by Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces.
Pitts, the Pennsylvania congressman, said federal legislation was necessary because abuses and dangers in horseracing were a national problem.
“Last year, I chaired a hearing that took a deep look into the problems of both legal and illegal drugs in horseracing,” Pitts said. “We heard testimony about how abuse of drugs is killing horses and imperiling riders. Before more people and animals are hurt, we need to put a responsible national authority in charge of cleaning up racing.”
Shaun Hubbard, general manager of Ruidoso Downs Race Track and Casino, declined to talk about Udall’s forthcoming bill.
But Hubbard said much was right with the horseracing industry and his track, where the power and beauty of horses in high-stakes competition creates an atmosphere that he likened to a Super Bowl.
He said Ruidoso Downs will offer about $5 million in purses during two early-September races for quarter horses.
“We’re proactively bettering the sport,” Hubbard said.
Udall and the congressmen who will sponsor the bill say they appreciate horseracing, but do not believe the industry can or will do all that is necessary to stop doping.
The bill they are preparing is not their first attempt to clean up horseracing. In 2011, they jointly sponsored the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act, whose expressed purpose was to prohibit the use of performance-enhancing drugs in horseracing.
Under the new legislation, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency would develop rules for permitted and prohibited substances. Race-day medication would be banned, and penalties for cheats would include lifetime bans for the worst offenders.