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Horseracing Safety Bill Advances To Senate

Rep. Paul Tonko speaks at Saratoga Race Course
Lucas Willard
Rep. Paul Tonko speaks at Saratoga Race Course to promote the Horserace Integrity and Safety Act in August 2019

A bill aimed at improving safety in thoroughbred horseracing has passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

For years, Capital Region Democratic Congressman Paul Tonko has pushed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act.

This week, the bill co-sponsored by Republican Andy Barr of Kentucky, cleared the House.

Tonko, who represents Saratoga Springs – home of Saratoga Race Course – says the health of the “equine athlete” is at the heart of the bill.

“I think this is a major step forward at a time when the industry really needs to be bolstered,” said Tonko.

The bill would create a uniform set of safety standards across the 38 states that host horse racing.

The New York Racing Association, which operates racetracks at Saratoga, Aqueduct, and Belmont, is supportive of the legislation. Pat McKenna is NYRA’s spokesman.

“And NYRA urges the U.S. Senate to quickly consider and pass the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act to secure the future of the sport,” said McKenna.

In a normal year, McKenna says New York’s racing industry supports 19,000 jobs and $3 billion in annual economic impact, $240 million to the Capital Region. While the stands were empty, a Saratoga meet was still held at the Spa this summer.

McKenna says NYRA is interested in continuing the conversation around the legislation’s creation of an independent authority that will determine medication and safety standards for horses.

“We’ll certainly look to have a seat at the table during those conversations because nowhere is racing more important than right here in New York state,” said McKenna.

The bill has not enjoyed universal approval among the horse racing industry.

In January, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association released a video criticizing the bill and its banning of race-day medications.

Much of the argument in the industry has centered around an anti-bleeding drug commonly known as Lasix.

National HBPA CEO Eric Hamelback speaks in the video posted on YouTube.

“We’re proud to say thoroughbred racing is a very clean industry. Performance enhancing drugs are not tolerated, period. And we support swift, severe penalties for violations. But there are prominent voices within our industry that want to – without scientific evidence – outlaw race day Lasix, a therapeutic which prevents injuries,” said Hamelback.

Critics say the drug allows horses to run more often and through pain, leading to injury.

Tonko says he is proud to the passage of the bill, a version of which was first introduced in 2015. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act heads to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is introducing the bill. The Kentucky Republican and powerful racing company Churchill Downs signaled their support of the bill just before this year’s Kentucky Derby.

“I think it’s a very strong leap forward. It’s been a long-fought battle. It reminds me of how many years it takes to get some things done,” said Tonko.

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