Racing's reformation?

Racing's reformation?

Congress panel calls on veterinary experts about fatal breakdowns
Jul 01, 2008

Washington — Meaningful reform of the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry is on its way — and probably much sooner than many would have believed as little as six months ago.

But whether those changes come from within, or through some form of government intervention, seems to be the question — especially 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.

Dr. Susan Stover
Regardless of how change comes about, probably by the end of this year, equine veterinarians 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 make it clear 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 proposed changes.

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.

Call for regulatory agency

Dr. Lawrence Soma
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? Horse racing 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 became Kentucky's first equine medical director, a new position that will influence whether, and how, that state should impose steroid tests.

Dr. Mary Scollay
"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."I think 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.