The U.S. Senate on Monday night voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) along with a $900 billion COVID-19 economic relief package.
The senators’ priority was mainly the latter, of course, but in an omnibus bill such as this, approval of the main sector carries all the included bills home as well.
The anti-doping bill, a version of which passed in the House of Representatives in September, is expected to be signed into law by outgoing President Trump in the coming days.
The deaths of dozens of horses at a racetrack in Santa Anita, Calif., since 2018 drew widespread national — and negative — attention to the so-called “sport of kings,” with some animal rights groups amplifying their calls to ban the sport entirely.
The bill’s passage is seen by its backers as a way to show such groups that enhanced safety requirements can allow for the sport to continue without such harm to the horses.
Finally, a bill that produced common ground among D.C. lawmakers
A key factor in a rare bipartisan show of support in Washington, D.C. was the influence of Kentucky legislator Mitch McConnell — the Senate majority leader — and House members Andy Tonko, a Democrat from New York, and Andy Barr, a Republican from Kentucky.
“I’m proud the Senate agreed to my legislation to preserve our signature racing industry and the 24,000 workers who support it,” McConnell said in a statement after the vote. “With the leadership of Congressman Andy Barr and the partnership of sport leaders, horse advocates, and fans, we’re one step closer to promoting fairness and safety across Thoroughbred racing.”
Tonko called Monday “a great day,” adding, “It’s going to save a sport, provide additional jobs and will be so respectful of the equine athletes, the jockeys and others who are involved. I am thrilled about it.”
Barr was equally effusive, equating HISA’s significance to the passage of the still-influential Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978.
“For almost a decade, I have worked with industry stakeholders and my Congressional colleagues to build consensus around reforms that will protect equine athletes and strengthen confidence and international competitiveness in the sport,” Barr said.
Dave O’Rourke, the New York Racing Association president, called the vote “a monumental step forward.”
“For the first time, the sport will have a unified set of national safety and integrity standards to replace an outdated system that relied on patchwork regulation,” O’Rourke said.
New sheriffs in town
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency will take over as the chief watchdog, a role previously left to private citizens such as Meadowlands Racetrack operator Jeff Gural — a leading figure in anti-doping efforts whose half-million dollars spent to fund such a probe led in March 2020 to dozens of indictments in the New York and New Jersey area.
The law will create the independent Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, a non-governmental regulatory body, to review medication use by horses and ensure sufficient safety conditions for racing. The use of Lasix on race days to prevent bleeding and of anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone, or “bute,” will be part of the group’s analysis.
To ensure adequate time for a transition, the bill sets July 1, 2022, as the date for the official launch of that agency.
The Breeders’ Cup, the New York Racing Association, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the United States Trotting Association, The Humane Society, and The Jockey Club all backed HISA.
In September, National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association CEO Eric Hamelback opposed the bill pending congressional consultation with his group. The main page on HBPA’s website on Tuesday still listed its opposition to the bill.