After years of discussion and amendments, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act now appears to be on the verge of becoming U.S. law.
The bill passed the House of Representatives by a voice vote on Tuesday, and Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell applauded the result.
Earlier in September, McConnell introduced a parallel bill with the support of Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
“Congress must put an end to the harsh treatment of racehorses and solidify health and safety standards for both racehorses and racetracks,” Gillibrand said in a statement.
Supporters of the bill that day included Churchill Downs, The Breeders’ Cup, and the Jockey Club.
The main hurdle remaining would appear to be whether the bill goes to the president’s desk before or after the election — with no sign that either Donald Trump or Joseph Biden has any reason to object.
What’s in the bill?
The bill would lead to the creation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, an independent regulatory body responsible for improving current regulations and setting national standards for track safety, anti-doping, and medication rules.
The recent breakthrough was the House bill being amended to match McConnell’s bill, including a three-year phase-out period for race-day Lasix usage rather prohibiting it immediately.
One aspect of the bill, a lack of veterinary oversight within the Authority, led one House member to be hesitant to endorse it.
“The intent of this legislation, to achieve uniform standards across the country, I think we all agree is a great one. We need this expertise and this help,” said Rep. Kurt Shrader (D-OR), who is a veterinarian. “But we can’t do it without the veterinary or medical advice being at the table on an ongoing basis.”
Still, bill sponsor Paul Tonko of New York was gratified by the bill’s passage.
“After nearly six years working to advance this bipartisan legislation to modernize horseracing in the United States, we are at long last rounding the final turn,” Congressman Tonko said in a statement. “Our Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act puts the health and well-being of our equine athletes and jockeys firmly at the center of the sport, and delivers commonsense medication and track safety standards that will lift this noble sport to higher standards of integrity and safety.
“These long overdue reforms will help restore public trust in the sport and put it on a path to a long and vital future, supporting countless jobs and driving economic activity in communities across our nation.”
Roll call of bill supporters — and critics
The list of supporters is impressive, including The Hambletonian Society, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the New York Racing Association, the Humane Society, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, renowned trainers Todd Pletcher and Shug McGaughey, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute.
Meadowlands Racetrack owner Jeff Gural, who aided an investigation into doping that led to dozens of indictments in March, also has backed the reform plan.
Dennis Drazin, whose Monmouth Park racetrack was home to several leading trainers who were indicted, initially opposed the reform bill. But a few weeks ago, he announced that compromises made were enough to convince him to endorse the bill.
But at least one lawmaker questioned the bipartisan effort on horse racing reform perhaps at the expense of other issues:
Almost 200 thousand dead and kids staring at screens all day trying to learn while their parents try to hold it together. People and businesses face economic extinction. Senate Republicans are doing this. https://t.co/bHmP7Wr5Zy
— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) September 9, 2020
U.S. Trotting Association President Russell Williams, meanwhile, also did not join the chorus.
“We’re disappointed, but not surprised, that the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was passed by the House; bad legislation gets passed all the time,” Williams said in a statement. “Sadly, HISA will be devastating to harness racing and put horses at risk. More than that, the bill is unconstitutional. The USTA remains focused in its opposition and will continue the fight in the Senate.”
The National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association objected to not being brought to the table of negotiations, with CEO Eric Hamelback cautioning politicians “not to be misled by the wealthy few in the industry who continue to promote federal legislation in service of their own, private interests.”
The will of the people
But critics face an uphill battle, with both elected officials and the public overwhelmingly backing sweeping reforms.
In a survey conducted last month, 78% of respondents said they were aware of a spike in equine fatalities last year, and 92% believe that racehorses are being doped and that the current bill should be passed before Congress ends its term in early October.
Photo by Brian Spurlock / USA Today Sports