A few years ago, big time professional sports had a problem with performance enhancing drugs. It seemed like all the big hitters were doing them in baseball. Some of the hard throwers were taking drugs too. It went on for far too long, but what if those drugs had been deadly? What if players had been dying on the field and other participants who weren't even on drugs were harmed in the process?
It's not an imaginary scenario. It is a grim reality in horseracing.
A few weeks ago, I convened a field hearing of the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee at Unionville High School in Chester County to investigate the use of performance enhancing drugs in professional horseracing and how it is affecting both horses and jockeys.
We invited jockeys, trainers, owners, and veterinarians to testify about the harm being done by the rampant use of drugs, including steroids and powerful painkillers. Each lamented the current state of the sport and called for clean races.
Our first witness was hall of fame jockey Gary Stevens, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner. He recalled times when he had to get off a horse because he thought that drugs had made it dangerous to ride.
Race day medications, steroids, and painkillers can form a deadly cocktail when the race starts. A horse that doesn't feel pain and runs too hard can hurt itself. A broken leg in the middle of the race can mean serious injury for the jockey. All too often this injury leads to permanent paralysis. For the horse, such an injury usually results in death. Sometimes a horse has to be put down on the track, in front of the crowd.
Unfortunately, it's not easy for a jockey to speak up and stop the horse from racing. Stevens related times when he would refuse to ride, only to see another jockey get roped into running the race at the last minute. Also, many jockeys are afraid of developing a poor reputation among owners and trainers.
One of the owners who testified was Gretchen Jackson, the owner of the famous Barbaro. She spoke personally about what it is like to watch a beloved horse go down on the track and her earnest belief that drugs are harming the sport.
Owner George Strawbridge testified about the poor reputation American horses are getting worldwide. In most countries, a centralized horseracing authority polices the sport and strict testing is in place. Foreign horse owners look at U.S. races and wonder whether the winning horse is of good stock, or just drugged well.
Years ago, veterinarians thought that wider use of drugs could actually make horseracing safer. Dr. Gregory Ferraro of the University of California-Davis Center for Equine Health was one of them. Appearing at the hearing via videoconference, Dr. Ferraro disavowed his previous stance and called for strict controls on drugs.
If horses are dying and jockeys are being maimed, then why isn't someone putting a stop to performance enhancing drugs in the sport? The simple answer is gambling revenue.
Horseracing doesn't have a strong central authority like the NFL or Major League Baseball. When those sports had a problem with drugs, they created new rules that applied equally to every team in every state. The 38 separate states that have horseracing have 38 sets of rules.
It probably wouldn't have been easy to clean up baseball if enforcement was done at the state level. If Massachusetts set tough rules and New York didn't, then the Red Sox could have been at a disadvantage to the Yankees. If Kentucky sets tough rules for horses, then shady owners could just take the horses to another state. Kentucky would lose a lot of tax revenue and the sport wouldn't really be cleaner.
Each of the witnesses at our hearing believes that the sport won't get cleaned up until the federal government takes a larger role. I'm a primary cosponsor of Rep. Ed Whitfield's (R-KY) Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act. This bill would start by banning race day medications.
Horseracing has promised to clean up its act before. If things don't change quickly, Congress should consider setting tougher rules to save horses and jockeys.