Horse racing under new congressional scrutiny
Lawmakers cite drugging, gambling, and abuse of animals as reasons to probe.
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Then Big Brown, a beefy 3-year-old bay colt that dominated the Preakness and the Derby, shockingly peters out on the final stretch at the Belmont Stakes – the first Triple Crown contender to ever finish last.
And now this week Congress begins hearings on the ethics of horse racing, auguring the end of a steroid-boosted era of superhero colts and phenom fillies – a three-decade span that has been unable to produce a Triple Crown winner.
Hooves down, it's been a tough year for the $40 billion US horse racing industry. As the world watched the Eight Belles tragedy on the track last month, horse racing overall saw attendance fizzle and wagering flatline – signs that one of the world's oldest sports is wrestling with some of modern society's toughest questions about the effects of greed on animal husbandry.
"When you talk about the Kentucky Derby, Belmont, Preakness, the whole country focuses on those, they attract stars from Hollywood, and it's all pretty romantic and wonderful," says US Rep. Ed Whitfield (R) of Kentucky, who holds hearings Thursday. "But in everyday racing, there are horses going down, and then the horses unable to fulfill their promise going to slaughter. The greed has trumped the concern for the horse, it's trumped the safety of the jockeys, and it's trumped the integrity of the sport."
In 1980, former US Sen. Charles "Mac" Mathias, Jr., a Maryland Republican, warned breeders to reform or face a congressional cavalry storming their barns. At stake this week is whether Congress will make good on that threat as the industry has grown rich on US-sanctioned simulcast betting while, critics say, overbreeding and overmedicating horses for speed at the expense of soundness, with some 37 percent of race-bred horses going to the slaughterhouse each year.
Congress will look at the lack of record-keeping about some facets of the sport, race day and maintenance doping, natural versus synthetic tracks, and the sport's special gambling status, where Congress sanctions and regulates simulcast racing. The main challenge will be to create some kind of national framework to oversee fiefdoms that range from Saudi sheikh owners to small bluegrass farms – in other words, opening the barn doors to the light, says Rep. Whitfield.
Changing societal views toward animals, especially those used for human enjoyment, has played a dramatic role both in racing's recent malaise and the decision by Congress to hold hearings. Fatal big-race breakdowns such as Eight Belles and Barbaro in 2006 only galvanized critics.
"I think it's kind of like dogfighting, cockfighting, and bullfighting in Spain, where different parts of Spain are starting to sit back and say, 'This is really cruel,'" says Laura Allen, executive director of the Animal Law Coalition in Kanab, Utah. "Just because we've been doing it a long time doesn't make it right."
The introduction of off-track betting in many states in the '90s meant grandstands started emptying out, but annual wagering increased from $9 billion to $15 billion. The use of medications, including anabolic steroids, is still legal in 28 of 38 racing jurisdictions, including the three states of the Triple Crown.