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Deep Within Relief Bill, Horse Racing Gets New Tools to Clean Up

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No one much liked the horse breeder and owner Arthur Hancock III in the spring of 1991 after he delivered what he now calls his “drugs-and-thugs speech” to the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing. He had spoken openly about thoroughbred racing’s dirty little secret: that too many of its horses were running on performance-enhancing drugs or were so doped up on anti-inflammatories and painkillers that they were running unnaturally fast and hurting themselves, often fatally.

It was not only the horses that were suffering but also people like Hancock, who had made a living breeding fast horses for generations, and others who harbored a passion for thoroughbreds.

Horse racing, Hancock said then, was losing market share to other sports, and even casinos had a better reputation than one of America’s oldest pastimes. Horse racing needed some law and order.

Hancock offered up what he called the Horse Racing Act of 1992, which called for drug-free racing, uniform rules backed by stiff penalties and a central office to enforce them.

“How are we going to compete with these if we are not in control of our own destiny and if we are perceived by the masses of fans and potential fans as being dishonest and riddled by drugs and thugs?” Hancock, now 77, asked those in attendance.

Nearly 30 years later, Hancock and others are finally getting help cleaning up the sport in the form of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, a provision included deep in the measure signed Sunday by President Trump to provide $900 billion in pandemic aid and to fund the government through September.

The horse racing measure, which takes effect July 1, 2022, calls for a board overseen by the Federal Trade Commission to write rules and penalties to be enforced by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which regulates Olympic athletes in the United States and which revealed Lance Armstrong’s cheating and issued him a lifetime suspension in 2012.

“It gives the horse industry a future,” Hancock said. “We were a rogue nation — now we are not.”

The changes, certainly overdue, were needed badly.

In the spring, federal prosecutors issued indictments accusing more than 30 trainers, veterinarians and drug company representatives of doping racehorses and cheating the public.

The indictments told of a drug culture that had taken a deep hold within the sport, with owners chasing big purses and a fear among trainers to hold crooked competitors accountable. One of the people indicted was the trainer Jason Servis, who trained a well-known winner in Maximum Security and was accused of covertly administering performance-enhancing drugs to horses under his care. Servis pleaded not guilty.

By November, Bob Baffert, the sport’s most decorated trainer and in many ways the face of horse racing, issued a public apology and promised to do better following drug tests failed by his horses. Baffert has had 29 tests failed by horses over the past four decades, including four in the past six months. Many of those cases were met with modest fines or short suspensions, as Baffert said he did nothing wrong and blamed the test results on environmental contamination or human error.

The new structure could change how similar cases are investigated and judged.

“This is a watershed moment for our sport,” said James L. Gagliano, chief operating officer of the Jockey Club, one of horse racing’s oldest and most influential organizations. “We have a chance to regulate our sports at high standards. If you don’t have safe and clean sport, you don’t have anything.”

Horse racing arrived at this moment because, in 2012, Hancock and his wife, Staci, founded the Water Hay Oats Alliance with the mission of getting drugs out of racing. They grew it to more than 1,800 industry members who shamed horsemen, veterinarians, politicians and regulators into treating thoroughbreds like athletes rather than commodities.

Among the most notable opponents to cleaning up racing were Churchill Downs Inc. — the host of the Kentucky Derby, America’s most famous race — and Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the Senate majority leader, who counts the company among his top patrons.

In 2016, Hancock said McConnell told him that he could not push an earlier version of the bill until Churchill Downs got on board.

“We don’t believe a federal bill is practical, reasonable, or imminent,” Bill Carstanjen, chief executive of Churchill Downs, told The New York Times in a statement in 2019.

In a memo obtained by The Times that laid out Churchill Downs’s opposition to the bill, the company cited costs and the fact that trainers and veterinarian groups were against the measure. The memo also pointed to the antidoping agency’s role in bringing down Armstrong, suggesting USADA might hurt the sport by finding and publicizing problems.

Over the summer, in the midst of a competitive re-election battle, McConnell brought Hancock’s group and the Jockey Club together with Churchill Downs. The one thing all sides could agree on was that Kentucky was the center of a $5.2 billion ecosystem that put 61,000 people to work.

But for how long?

Between the doping scandals and a run of fatal breakdowns in Southern California that attracted national news and the attention of animal rights activists, the sides settled their differences and agreed on a federal bill that won bipartisan support. The industry will pay for the national authority and its enforcement efforts.

Travis Tygart, USADA’s chief executive, knows the agency will have plenty to do, and plans to staff up accordingly. Equine athletes may be different than humans but the mentality of winning at all costs still pervades the sport.

“Our tip line is already receiving tips of violations under the current state rules. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit,” Tygart said. “It’s the sport of kings, and with the gambling and the lack of uniformity and tremendous loopholes that many states have in their antidoping programs, it’s been devastating for the animals, who have no choice.”

Hancock can still feel the chill of the cold reception he got from colleagues after delivering his speech in 1991. He can still quote one reaction in particular.

“These horses need this medication,” Hancock was told. “I thought you were kindhearted, Arthur, but really you are cruel.”

Perhaps that thinking has turned around.

Rebecca R. Ruiz contributed reporting.

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