Congress panel calls for reforms
Meaningful reform is coming one way or the other, and soon, as was evident after a Congressional subcommittee questioned representatives of the industry, and some leading veterinarians, about problems such as legal and illegal medications and a rash of racetrack injuries and deaths that have heaped negative publicity on the sport the last couple of years.
Regardless of how change occurs, equine veterinarians clearly will play an important advisory role.
The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection used the June 19 hearing on the topic "Breeding, Drugs and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Horseracing and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred" as an occasion to show that Congress might take some action if the industry doesn't.
But the industry isn't exactly sitting still.
Two days before the hearing, a seven-member Thoroughbred Safety Committee appointed by the Jockey Club immediately after the fatal breakdown of the filly Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby, announced its recommendations -- elimination of steroid use in racing and race training, a ban on friction-enhancing toe grabs and a series of whip-related reforms, all to be in place at North American tracks by Dec. 31. Virtually all major racing-industry groups endorsed the recommendations.
Industry executives who testified at the hearing used the recommendations as proof that the industry is serious about taking prompt action to improve regulation of the sport.
But Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who opened the hearing, used the Eight Belles incident to bolster her point that Congress may need to step in. A necropsy showed Eight Belles wasn't given steroids, but Schakowsky pointed to the filly's genetic line to argue that many of today's racehorses are far too fragile because of poor breeding practices and overuse of medications.
"Unlike every other professional and amateur sport, horse racing lacks any national regulatory authority that can promulgate rules and regulations," Schakowsky said. "What is going on here? Horseracing remains a confusing patchwork of different regulations from state to state. One of the central questions this subcommittee wants to explore is: Does horse racing need a central governing authority? Is the racing industry truly capable of making reforms of its own within the current regulatory framework?"
"The idea of a central, unified regulatory agency that would expedite needed changes in the racing industry is appealing," says Dr. Mary Scollay, a former racetrack veterinarian who on July 1 becomes Kentucky's first equine medical director, a new position that will influence whether, and how, that state should impose steroid tests.
"However, I strongly believe that (regulatory) agency shouldn't be the federal government," Scollay tells DVM Newsmagazine. "The government has enough on its plate," she says. "The industry is motivated like never before to take care of the problems in racing, so adding another layer of oversight - perhaps people who are not conversant with these complex issues - isn't going to work for the benefit of horses nor the viability of the industry."
Scollay, who for 13 years was track veterinarian at Florida's Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park, was one of four equine veterinarians who testified before the subcommittee, along with eight other expert witnesses.
The panel had some tough questions for Thoroughbred owners, breeders, trainers and officials from major racing and equine organizations, and some of their responses seemed sharply critical of the role of track veterinarians. At least a couple of the witnesses intimated that some veterinarians might be reaping excessive profits by pushing medications on trainers and owners.
Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), ranking member of the panel, echoed Schakowsky's remarks by adding, "Greed has hurt the health of the horse, safety of the jockey, strength of the breed and the integrity of the sport. Horses race more on drug-induced ability than natural ability. It's not who has the best horse, but who has the best veterinarian." Whitfield also charged that there's a lack of transparency regarding deaths on the racetrack, and the lack of a central association or agency to enforce rules uniformly across the states. More than three horse deaths a day were reported at tracks around the country last year, and 5,000 since 2003.
"This hearing is a wake-up call for you," Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) told the dozen witnesses. "There is abuse in your industry and you know it better than I. We don't want to come in and regulate you; we want you to regulate yourself. We are asking you to step up to the plate."
The four veterinarians gave their opening statements on medical issues and what's being done to help cut down racing injuries, but they were last on the hearing schedule and time ran out before subcommittee members could question them at length individually. Another hearing is expected in the near future.
The four DVMs testifying were:
* Dr. Sue Stover, a veterinary orthopedist at the University of California-Davis, who told the panel that, while the growing number of racehorse deaths is "devastating, they are the tip of the iceberg." Many horses suffer microscopic bone damage inadvertently, even under normal conditions, which don't necessarily point to abuse, she said. Initial preliminary data from mandated synthetic track surfaces in California show promise for helping prevent injuries, she said. "Given time, I'm optimistic we can prevent many more injuries."
* Dr. Lawrence Soma, an equine pharmacologist at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, said most racehorses in his state are now running free of anabolic steroids. He also described the legal use of furosemide, or Lasix, as a pre-race medication that reduces pressure in horses' lungs, but hasn't been shown to stop all bleeding. Horses given furosemide seem to run faster, he said.
* Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, veterinary orthopedic surgeon at the University of Colorado, told the panel about collaborative work he is doing that may help in the early recognition of bone damage that could help prevent later fractures, ongoing work in comparing the effects of different track surfaces and equine practitioners' concern with proper use of medications. "These three issues from my perspective are key. As veterinarians, we continue to promote the health and well-being of all equine athletes," he said.
The panel's lead-off witness, Allen Marzelli, president and chief executive officer of the Jockey Club, said the industry recognizes its problems as never before and is working quickly and effectively to correct them.
As proof of that, he cited the new recommendations just released by the club's Thoroughbred Safety Committee.
That committee, which includes Lexington veterinarian Dr. Larry Bramlage, an American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) "on-call" veterinarian at many major races, will hold additional meetings during the next 60 days to make recommendations on other issues, including the use of therapeutic medications, illegal drugs, prohibited practices and substantially increased penalties.
When Marzelli told the panel he favors letting the industry continue to reform itself along these lines, Whitfield shot back, "You can only recommend. Do you have the power to put this into effect?"
Marzelli said his group does have "the power of persuasion."
"Your record would reflect you lack even that power," Whitfield replied, adding "It's been clearly demonstrated that the NTRA (National Thoroughbred Racing Authority) and the Jockey Club do not have the authority."