WASHINGTON -- A bill to ban race-day doping of horses and set national medication and track-safety standards for the horse-racing industry is nearing the finish line. Lawmakers gave final approval to the bill late Monday as part of the massive legislation on spending and pandemic relief.
President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill in the next few days.
Passage of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act comes after a series of doping scandals and a rash of horse fatalities in recent years. More than two dozen people were charged last March in what authorities described as a widespread international scheme to drug horses to make them run faster.
The House approved the bill by voice vote in September, sending it to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell co-sponsored similar legislation. The measure was eventually folded into the larger spending package.
McConnell’s home state of Kentucky boasts some of the country’s top breeding farms and Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the fabled Triple Crown.
"Kentucky’s cherished horseracing traditions deserve to be protected. I’m proud the Senate agreed to my legislation to preserve our signature racing industry and the 24,000 workers who support it,” he said in a statement.
The new law should "better protect every competitor and give each of them a fair shot at the winner’s circle,” McConnell said.
Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., co-sponsored the House bill with Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky.
"For six years now, I have worked in a bipartisan fashion with my friend and partner in this effort, Congressman Andy Barr, to reform this noble sport to ensure it can continue to provide good jobs and support economic vitality'' in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and other horse-racing communities, Tonko said in a statement.
The new law puts “the well-being of our horses and jockeys front and center, delivering common-sense medication reforms and track safety standards that will restore public trust and confidence,'' Tonko said. ”After this long race, I am delighted to see our legislation finally reach the winner’s circle.''
Drew Fleming, president and CEO of the Breeders’ Cup, called the bill "the single most significant safety and integrity development in the history of Thoroughbred racing. This moment also demonstrates that great progress can be accomplished when the industry works together.''
Horse racing has long been woven into the fabric of American culture, Tonko said during House debate, citing storied names such as Secretariat and Man o’ War that “stir the imagination of racing fans” around the world. Racing also serves as a major economic driver in many parts of the country, including New York, California and other states.
Even so, the sport in recent years has seen “the devastating results that can occur when these equine athletes are pushed beyond their limits,'' Tonko said.
A patchwork of state medical and safety regulations that are uneven and often unenforced compound the problem, Tonko and other lawmakers said.
The newly passed bill would empower an independent Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority to set uniform, national standards for medication, track safety and testing of horses for performance-enhancing drugs.
The legislation is supported by a range of groups, including The Jockey Club, the New York Racing Association and the Humane Society of the United States.
"Passage of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act is the biggest news for horses in Congress in half a century and will put the welfare of the horses at the center of the enterprise,'' said Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action, an advocacy group. The bill also will ensure that the U.S. racing industry aligns with global standards, he said.
Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said an average of at least eight horses die at the races every week. “Congressional intervention is imperative to protect these magnificent animals,″ she said.