Lawmaker seeks uniform drug tests in horse racing

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The Triple Crown is made up of three races in three states that use three different sets of drug rules.

A lawmaker is hoping the buzz from California Chrome’s run for the Triple Crown might build support for a bill that would place the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in charge of drug testing at races nationwide.

“It’s an industry that has, for years, pledged to clean things up,” said Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, who sponsored the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. “But things seem to be getting worse, not better.”

Pitts introduced the bill last spring, and since then, it has been in committees awaiting a chance to be voted on by the full House.

Drug use is widely seen as the biggest problem facing horse racing today. A recent investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sparked an investigation into successful trainer Steve Asmussen for allegedly mistreating horses. A 2012 investigation by The New York Times found that 3,800 horses had tested positive for drugs, the large majority of which were for illegal levels of prescription drugs.

Some critics of the current rules point out that the 38 states that operate horse tracks work under 38 distinct sets of rules.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has adopted a set of uniform rules and is pushing state legislatures, racing commissions and other regulatory bodies to pass them in the individual states. So far, 19 states have passed or are considering a rule that would remove all controlled substances except for Lasix - a diuretic known to improve horses’ performance - from racing, and standardize testing for the other drugs.

Eight states have passed another rule that standardizes a penalty structure for trainers who violate drug rules.

Horse racing is highly regulated by the states because it involves gambling. NTRA president Alex Waldrop says he hasn’t spent much time analyzing the proposed national legislation, but the reality is that it’s very hard to pull rulemaking away from the states.

“It’s a very difficult balance we’re trying to strike here,” Waldrop said. “It’s about respecting every state’s interest and unique concerns. But we’re constantly pushing for greater uniformity through education and scientific research.”

The clumsy nature of the issue came into focus shortly after the Preakness, when California Chrome’s trainer had to get a waiver from track stewards at the Belmont to wear nasal strips, which were allowed in Kentucky and Maryland but not in New York.

Though the nasal-strip issue turned out to be minor, USADA CEO Travis Tygart said those sorts of rules differences put horse racing in much the same position Olympic sports were in before they went for more standardized enforcement after the scandals of the 1990s.

“The lack of uniformity and strict enforcement has created huge loopholes, where, if you’re playing by the rules, you’re at a competitive disadvantage,” Tygart said.

Dionne Benson, who helped write the uniform rules being proposed by the NTRA, said improving anti-doping measures will involve more than one national law.

“It’s not as easy as enacting a bill,” she said. “It’s unclear whether that bill would fully regulate in this area, or if we’d just be adding another layer.”

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