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Tonko Pushes For Anti-Doping Bill At Saratoga Race Course

Rep. Paul Tonko speaks at Saratoga Race Course
Lucas Willard
Rep. Paul Tonko speaks at Saratoga Race Course

August is here and the thoroughbred racing season is in full swing at Saratoga Race Course. And a local congressman is trying once again to pass anti-doping legislation directed at the sport.

Democrat Paul Tonko of New York’s 20th Congressional District is a co-sponsor of the Horseracing Integrity Act. Tonko and Republican Andy Barr of Kentucky are continuing their push for a bill intended to institute anti-doping rules and create uniformity across the country.

At a press conference Thursday at the gates of Saratoga Race Course, Tonko said owners, trainers, and jockeys have all called for a solution to the doping problem.  

“They have spoken out forcefully for a sensible, common sense approach. I believe this does it,” said Tonko.

Currently, 38 states host horseracing and each state has its own set of regulations. The bill would create a panel to create and implement anti-doping rules across the horseracing industry.

Also, among its provisions, it would ban all use of medications within 24 hours of a race.

Among the group flanking Tonko, thoroughbred owner Art Hancock said the rule to restrict race-day medication would make the United States racing industry “like the rest of the world.”

“And you’d have the best testing facility in the country, which is USADA – United States Anti-Doping Agency – and they’re in charge of the Olympics and they can straighten this whole thing out. But we need Washington because we have the 38 states. And we need an umbrella for that,” said Hancock.

Much of the debate surrounding medication in horseracing centers around the drug commonly known as Lasix, a controversial anti-bleeding medication.

Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito said the industry can be changed.

“Do horses bleed? Of course they do. Is it going to take a long time? Yes. Yes. It’s going to take a long, long time. But something has to be done,” said Zito.

The New York Racing Association, along with a coalition of other racetrack operators that together hold 86 percent of stakes races, this year announced its support for a phase-out of Lasix. Beginning next year, coalition tracks will no longer allow use within 24 hours before a race for 2-year-olds. In 2021, the drug would be eliminated from use in stakes races.

The uniformity that the Horseracing Integrity Act would bring to all racetracks is backed by NYRA. Here’s spokesman Pat McKenna.

“Ultimately, uniformity is good for the longevity of the sport and, in turn, supports the continued success of the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course, which is a major economic driver for the entire Capital Region,” said McKenna.

To point out the need for new anti-doping rules, Staci Hancock, Art’s wife and a member of the Water Hay Oats Alliance, recited words by the late Marylou Whitney, originally written in 2013.

“It takes a lifetime to build a reputation, and only a second to lose it. We can no longer be absentee owners of our thoroughbreds. It’s time to clean up our act so our sport can again earn the respect of its fan. They deserve better and so do our horses,” said Staci Hancock.

With a growing number of supporters for his legislation in the House, Congressman Tonko said he hoped the bill could be voted on within months.

“And so I call upon both Houses, and especially the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, to act accordingly: provide for this common sense solution that will drive integrity into the equation; that will focus heavily and kindly on the equine athlete; and build support with the general community,” said Tonko.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.