The Debate Around Horse Racing Reforms

Will Mahan, Sports Editor

Usually, when we imagine major scandals in sports, our minds wander off to instances like the Lance Armstrong scandal that occurred in 2004. However, amid the cancellation of mass-sporting events, one of the biggest athletic challenges of 2020 involves horses. Yes, you heard that correctly. 

Just this year, the U.S. Government caught two major trainers involved in a coordinated scheme to drug racehorses. In reaction to this development, as well as other recent problems, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency C.E.O. Travis T. Tygart, expressed his support for the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act, a recent bill that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“It will be a game-changer, I think, for when it comes time to protect the health and safety of the horses and the integrity and fairness of the competition,” Tygard stated. 

These proposed reforms include: eliminating performance-enhancing drugs, restricting the use of an anti-bleeding medication, placing limitations on the usage of bronchodilator, and lowering the number of acceptable whips. 

Some of the backlash to these new regulations involves complaints about the additional spending that these changes will require from the horse racing industry. Many within the industry also remain hesitant about some of the proposed restrictions on Lasix, a race-day medication that is intended to reduce pulmonary bleeding. Even though Lasix hasn’t been linked to any horse deaths, some have argued that it is a gateway to the unfair treatment of racing horses. A common argument against the use of Lasix is that it is not used in Europe, since pulmonary bleeding rarely occurs on soft surfaces race tracks.

Professional Horse Trainer Mark Casse has been an outspoken critic on the use of harder surfaces in races. “I can tell you this without a doubt, and I run more horses probably than anybody — dirt, synthetic, and turf — that horses bleed more on dirt than anything else,” Casse stated.

One of the most controversial aspects of the proposed bill is the restrictions it places on whip use. Hall of Fame riders Mike Smith and John Velaquez have both criticized the proposed measures involving restricted whip-use. New York Racing Association Spokesman Patrick McKenna recently issued a statement regarding the proposed measures. She stated that while the association supports strictly limiting the use of whips, they also understand the importance it holds in ensuring effective communication between the riders and horses.

All of these changes could significantly change the way in which horse racing is conducted, particularly since the sport itself hasn’t traditionally had a national governing body. Currently, many of the rules and laws surrounding horse racing are set on a state-to-state basis. California reduced the number of tolerated whips to 6, while Kentucky reduced it to 2. New Jersey, on the other hand, banned the use of whipping altogether (except when used for safety purposes).

Many of these measures remain controversial in nature, however, the horse racing industry as a whole does seem to be unified in its end goal of fixing the challenges it has faced. National Thoroughbred Racing Association C.E.O. Alex Waldrop, recently expressed his support for some of the reforms. “It’s not as if we can just say, ‘Well, too bad, too expensive.’ The costs of not doing it are far greater than the cost of doing it.” Waldrop stated.

Regardless of what happens, the members of the horse racing industry have affirmed their commitment to ensuring safety and fairness in competition. Some of the measures still face heated debate, however, the industry’s commitment to ensuring safety in the sport remains incredibly strong regardless.