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Racing's critics ask for help

House panel hears from some in horse industry who want a regulating body.

June 20, 2008|Vimal Patel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers examining the health and safety of thoroughbred racehorses on Thursday advocated for a centralized governing authority that would regulate the sport, as critics of the racing industry called for congressional intervention to create that body.

"We're looking for Arnold Schwarzenegger's upper body and then we go to Don Knotts' legs and knees," said Jess Jackson, owner of Curlin, the 2007 Horse of the Year. "We don't need all of the inbreeding we have. I go to Argentina to buy horses; I go to Germany to buy horses because they have stronger bones and better knees. We need a league and a commissioner. We need action, please. Congress, help."

The hearing by a House consumer protection subcommittee came less than two months after the post-race death of filly Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby, an event that created a public outcry and a sense of urgency for reform from inside and outside the sport.

Critics want a body that would regulate the industry, rather than leaving the ability to enforce rules and penalties to each of the 38 states where thoroughbred racing is permitted.

"They are like fiefdoms, and they each have their Nero-like CEOs," Arthur Hancock, a longtime thoroughbred owner and breeder, told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection. "We are too fragmented and too diverse. . . . Only a federal racing commission or commissioner can save us from ourselves."

The meeting, called by Reps. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), the panel's chairman, and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), also examined breeding practices, the safety of various track surfaces and the use of steroids.

"There are those who believe that Congress should not be involved in horse racing," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). "However, Congress is already involved. The Interstate Horseracing Act, which is under this subcommittee's jurisdiction, allows race tracks a unique status under federal law. Unlike any gambling operation in America, they are allowed to transmit their racing product across state lines and receive wagers from bettors out of state."

Of about 15,000 licensed trainers in the U.S., nearly 9% have been cited for a medication violation in the last five years, according to information provided to the subcommittee by the Assn. of Racing Commissioners International. Some of those who testified said that, unlike in other sports, there doesn't appear to be a stigma attached to performance-enhancement violations, which are set by individual states.

"They give them a slap on the hand and they get one infraction after the other, and nothing ever happens to them," said Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer. He called the prevalence of drug use "chemical warfare."

Thoroughbreds in the U.S. and Canada have fewer starts per year these days. In 2007, they averaged 6.3 per year, compared with 10.9 in 1950. Some have said this is evidence that steroids and breeding practices -- Eight Belles' great-grandfather, for instance, was also her great-great grandfather -- are weakening the overall breed.

Industry leaders, including the Jockey Club, the breed registry for thoroughbred horses in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada, indicated they would resist at least some parts of outside regulation.

Alan Marzelli, president and chief executive of the Jockey Club, said the "medication dilemma" was the industry's most pressing concern. But to deal with it and overall issues of horse health and safety, he wrote in a letter to the committee, the club will "harness the appropriate support from within the industry" to implement future recommendations.

Trainer Rick Dutrow, who admitted injecting Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown with anabolic steroids, which were legal in the states where the horse raced, was expected to speak before the committee but didn't show up. Dutrow said he was too ill to attend, the Associated Press reported.

"I'm disappointed by his absence, and I'm disappointed that he did not feel the need to notify the subcommittee directly of his decision," Schakowsky said.

On Tuesday, a separate committee created by horse racing organizations shortly after Eight Belles' death in May recommended the elimination of steroids. Whitfield said the industry has frequently stated that it would police itself but doesn't follow through.

Whitfield said he didn't understand why Marzelli and other industry leaders, who have acknowledged there is a need for enforcement of uniform standards and a lack of ability to do so, are resisting outside intervention.

Marzelli responded: "I would like to see the industry regulate itself."

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vimal.patel@latimes.com

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