Op-Ed: American Horse Racing Scandals Continue to Pile Up Alongside Track Deaths

Marty Irby of Animal Wellness Action makes a plea to stamp out doping and end the drum beat of horse breakdowns, deaths and doping controversies that have dogged the sport of horse racing for so many years.

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When the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (Act) was signed into law in December of 2020, after six years of hard lobbying, I honestly thought that American horse racing was finally on the right track in protecting the horses and stamping out doping for good. And we knew enforcement would be essential to good outcomes for horses and for racing, but recent developments on that front have made me skeptical.

We’d been through more draft versions of the bill than one could keep count of, and at least a half a dozen different bills introduced in the House and Senate over the past decade. Some covered certain breeds, some banned Lasix and some didn’t, and typically the Senate bills differed from the House measures even when the bills’ leaders were on the same page.

There was only one constant in every bill: ensuring that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) would oversee the execution and enforcement of the law and conduct all of the drug testing in the sport. In nearly a thousand meetings with Members of Congress we conveyed that essential point, and at every turn USADA’s involvement was critical – in fact, USADA’s involvement is the very bedrock and foundation of the new law.

The Act provided for a delay in implementation to allow for the drug-testing entity to be put in place by mid-2022. To satisfy constitutional concerns, the Act provided for the creation of a new entity to execute a five-year contract with USADA: the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA).

As the new HISA board was appointed and continued to evolve, we began to see that 2021 was in fact a pretty terrible year for the horses and for horse racing itself. Bob Baffert’s Kentucky Derby doping scandal with Medina Spirit brought more unwanted attention to problems in the sport. Baffert’s horse was allowed to run in The Preakness following a drug test that revealed the horse had won the Derby with illegal levels of betamethasone in his system. If there’s one thing Baffert and American horse racing are good at, it’s creating public relations kerfuffles and reminding Americans that the welfare of horses is not always put first.

And while we applauded the New York Racing Association (NYRA) for banning Medina Spirit and Baffert from The Belmont Stakes, we still saw Baffert snub the rules and file lawsuits against both NYRA and Kentucky racing officials, fighting to continue to race at their tracks despite his violations. To make things worse, sadly, just last month, Medina Spirit dropped dead at Santa Anita Park following a workout under Baffert’s continued direction – one more incident that raises questions about horse racing’s most infamous trainer and the health of horses at Santa Anita where countless others have died.

But Medina Spirit’s untimely death wasn’t the final debacle for horse racing in 2021. On December 23rd, just two days before Christmas, we all learned that the new HISA board and USADA were unable to come to terms on a five-year agreement, and the parties were walking away from negotiations.

In the past weeks, things have gotten dramatically worse on several other fronts as numerous horses went down in an ugly crash at Northfield Park’s recent harness racing meet, and three horses were euthanized on the spot. The body count in American horse racing continues to climb.

But that’s not all – the cloud over Bob Baffert’s name grew even darker when he appeared in headlines again as NYRA announced additional charges last week against the trainer for mislabeling of drugs on twenty-five different containers.

Left to Right: Marty Irby, Ed Martin, Bill Lear, Kathleen Anderson, Joe DeFrancis, Chris McCarron, and Dennis Drazin testify before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce in January of 2020. Photo by Animal Wellness Action.

And to top things off, the Los Angeles Times just reported the California Horse Racing Board’s (CHRB) Medical Director, Dr. Jeff Blea, “had his veterinary license temporarily suspended on Monday by the state Veterinary Medical Board, setting up a showdown with the racing board, which plans to keep Blea in his job.” Furthermore, Blea sits on the new HISA board‘s Anti-Doping and Medication Control Committee. What a mess.

Just when we thought American horse racing couldn’t get more scandalous or dismissive of the horses it exploits for profit, the industry has put itself amidst further controversy and public dismay and if these problems aren’t soon solved, the sport is in danger of losing even more support from the American public. There is only one solid option for horse racing’s redemption, and that’s for the new HISA board to move swiftly and decisively in securing a contract with USADA to stamp out doping and end the drum beat of horse breakdowns, deaths and doping controversies that have dogged the sport.

Marty Irby is the executive director at Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C. and is a former 8-time world champion equestrian who was honored by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, II for his work to protect horses. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @MartyIrby.