Horse racing moves to reform, but faces many skeptics

A new overseer, Tommy Thompson, promises to be tough on doping and other questionable practices.

Benoit Photo/AP
Safer track? Curlin (l.), the Horse of the Year, worked out Monday on a synthetic track in anticipation of next week's Breeders' Cup Classic.

America's horse-racing industry is trying to clean up its image with a new high-profile overseer and promises of voluntary certification for tracks that meet tough standards.

But it still has to convince Congress and skeptical animal-rights groups who have called for mandatory federal regulation in the wake of high-profile racing deaths, charges of widespread doping, and the treatment of retired racehorses.

"[The racing industry] is trying to head off at the pass some federal intervention that they think could really change the industry in ways that could be detrimental," says Tim Capps, a horse-racing expert at the University of Louisville. "But at the end of the day, is anything really going to change?"

Reform of the tradition-bound $40 billion industry will be a daunting task. The sport is trying to change behaviors of owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys, and track operators across 38 different state racing jurisdictions.

With that goal in mind, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) hired Tommy Thompson, former cabinet secretary under President Bush and former co-owner of Derby racer Flashy Bull, to monitor the sport's progress.

"I'm going to be tough and I'm going to be brutally candid," says Mr. Thompson. "If they fail, I'll give them a failing grade; if they succeed, I'll give them an A-plus. Hopefully there'll be a lot of A's and B's, but we don't know that yet."

Among the issues are allegations of rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs and concerns that traditional racetracks are too hard on the horses.

The latter issue gained new urgency among the racing public and animal-rights community after filly Eight Belles had to be euthanized on the track because she broke two ankles running this year's Kentucky Derby. In June, congressional hearings centered on the benefits of synthetic tracks and the slaughter of retired racehorses, as well as charges that horses were being treated with anabolic steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs to boost their performance.

Besides announcing Thompson's appointment on Wednesday, the NTRA also said it had formed the Safety and Training Alliance, a consortium of breeders, trainers, owners, and track operators.

By the end of 2009, says NTRA president Alex Waldrop, the alliance will have put in place a voluntary track certification program – based on the college accreditation model – to encourage racetracks to reform their practices.

"I've sensed a will to change like I've never seen," says Mr. Waldrop.

For example: 18 of the 38 racing states have already outlawed steroids. Some tracks have started providing retirement stalls for old horses. And next week's Breeders' Cup is the first major race to both outlaw doping and be run on a synthetic track.

"The confluence of events that took place this year acted as a catalyst to ... create a sense of urgency that didn't exist a year ago," says Kentucky state Sen. Damon Thayer (R). "If Eight Belles can be remembered as the horse that created that sense of urgency, then she did not die in vain."

Some observers are more skeptical. US Rep. Edward Whitfield (R) of Kentucky said this summer that federal oversight may be necessary to rein in disparate and greedy stakeholders that have, despite past warnings from Congress, failed to overhaul the sport.

The emergence of off-track parimutuel betting in the 1990s doubled annual horse-race wagering to $15 billion but also brought intense new pressures into an already competitive world.

Critics say the new industry alliance faces a fundamental problem: Although 56 racetracks have volunteered for the certification program, there are more than 100 racetracks in the US. Thus, facilities with the worst records on horse welfare are least likely to join the alliance, leaving them unregulated, says Keith Dane, director of equine protection at the Humane Society in Gaithersburg, Md.

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