Congress, save racing from itself

A Congressional panel will meet Thursday in Washington D.C. to further discuss legislation that would give the federal government strict oversight over the sport's drug, animal welfare and integrity issues. It's been a while since the panel has convened and the members might want to know what's been going on lately in horse racing. It hasn't been good.

--An investigation by the Blood-Horse has shed light on compounding pharmacies, pharmacies that create drugs to fit the unique needs of a patient. On the surface, there's nothing wrong with that, but the Blood-Horse report showed that a Texas compounding pharmacy, Weatherford Compounding Pharmacy, was producing products advertised as, wink, wink, performance-enhancers. "(racing regulators) know the compounder as the manufacturer of mysterious products with names that suggest performance-enhancing effects: Equine Growth Hormone, Game Changer, Exacta, and Race Ready, to name a few," the Blood-Horse's Frank Angst wrote.

There's a job that needs to be done and, unfortunately, the government may just be the only hope.

--The Paulick Report has continued to focus on the nefarious drug Demorphine and the website's Natalie Voss has written about just how difficult it is for regulators to catch those using this drug and others like it.

--The New York Times, which has been relentless in focusing its influential spotlight on racing's drug problems, led its pre-Breeders' Cup coverage with the headline "Breeders' Cup: Trainers Aren't Helping as Drugs Damage Sport." The Times referenced a report that showed that 79 percent of all bettors factor in the possibility of illegal drug use when handicapping certain tracks or in certain states.

–Stories by Ryan Goldberg in the Thoroughbred Daily News shed light on the lengths trainers can and will go to prop up their horses through drugs, all of them legal. Goldberg told the story of a horse named Coronado Heights who suffered a fatal injury in a January 12, 2012 race at Aqueduct. Between his last start and the start in which he died he was treated with xylazine, dormosedan, DepoMedrol, hyaluronic acid, flunixin, bute, Estrone, Adequan, Vitmain B1 and calcium. Everything done to the horse was 100% legal.

--The Jockey Club released figures that show that 1.92 horses out of every 1,000 starters died on the racetrack in 2012..

–The Breeders' Cup, bowing to pressure, rescinded a planned ban on Lasix for Breeders' Cups starting in 2014.

So much for the sport getting it's act together...and that's the point. It's not going to happen, not unless the government steps in, takes control and, hopefully, put the United States Anti-Doping Agency in charge when it comes to the drugs and medications used in the sport.

Let's hope the Congressmen read these stories, but perhaps they don't need to. The government has already figured out that a pervasive drug culture exists in the sport. It has become a part of the very fiber of the game, so much so that far too many trainers rely on pharmacology as much or more so than old fashioned horsemanship when it comes to trying to win races.

It's not good the sport. It's not good for the animal. It's not good for the bettors. And it's particularly not good for the owners, whose horses no longer run 20 to 25 times a year but four or five, vastly limiting their money-making opportunities. That the use of drugs in the sport increased dramatically at just about the same time that horses started running far less frequently cannot possibly be a coincidence.

There are blatant cheaters in the sport, miracle-workers who continually improve horses over night and win at ungodly high winning percentages. They're an easy target, and they should be. But the Congressional panel needs to take just as hard as look at the drug regimens routinely given to horses. The New York Times has been at the forefront of this issue, enlightening its readers about a culture where: "...racetrack veterinarians are supposed to put the horse first, having taken an oath to protect animal health and welfare. Yet in the shed rows of America's racetracks and at private training centers, racehorse veterinarians often live by a different code — unique in the veterinary community — one that emphasizes drugs to keep horses racing and winning rather than treating soreness or injury through rest or other less aggressive means..."

Drugs are destroying the sport and something has to be done. With no commissioner, with no one organization having nearly enough power to reel in what has gotten out of control, the only hope is the federal government.

Of course Congress has plenty on its plate and there might be a feeling on Capitol Hill that the game of horse racing isn't worth the fuss. But these are serious issues and they involve animal welfare, integrity, the safety of jockeys, fairness and an industry where billions of dollars is wagered each year.

There's a job that needs to be done and, unfortunately, the government may just be the only hope.