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Long Promoted By Rep. Tonko, Horseracing Integrity Bill Gets McConnell's Approval

Horseracing at Saratoga Race Course
Lucas Willard
Saratoga Race Course will be closed to the public this summer.

New York Congressman Paul Tonko
Credit Lucas Willard / WAMC
Rep. Paul Tonko

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, a version of which has been promoted for years by Capital Region House Democrat Paul Tonko, now has a path forward in the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky announced Monday in Lexington that he will introduce the bill in the Senate, after getting support from The Jockey Club, Keeneland and Churchill Downs. 

Tonko says the bill adds a track safety component to existing medication standards

In a statement, New York Racing Association CEO Dave O’Rourke said NYRA supports the bill and urges quick passage:

“NYRA has long supported a national approach to medication control and anti-doping across the sport of horse racing. The safety and welfare of the athletes competing at NYRA tracks is our highest priority, which is why NYRA supports the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act and urges quick consideration by Congress.

“NYRA is committed to providing the safest possible environment for racing and training by adopting and implementing the best proven safety practices in consultation with independent experts, veterinarians, horsemen and regulators.”

Tonko: Well, I'm very excited about this progress, because for about six years now, in a bipartisan way in the House, I've been working with my colleague and friend Andy Barr, a Republican from Kentucky, who obviously has a similar interest in the industry. We have come forth with legislation that really puts the focus on the equine athletes making certain that that athlete is protected. And the legislation for integrity in the sport add been moving through the house we've had hearings that suggested beyond the protection of the equine athlete and the judge He's, of course, we need to look at perhaps the safety of the track. And so this legislation combines that effort. And we now have partnership with the Senate. And I'm told it's going to be bipartisan. So that means that we can move forward and perhaps strikes success before the end of the year for the integrity of the sport, and for the safety of the equine athlete. The horse is a very important factor in this whole exercise and the behavior surrounding that horse can't be controlled by the horse. So we want to make certain that the guardrails and the safety net so to speak, are there. And as we move forward, I'm introducing an amendment to incorporate all of the slight changes in the legislation and again in the hope that we can get something done before year’s end.

Do you know any more details about those changes to racetracks themselves? I imagine this has to do with the breakdowns that we've been seeing around the country, especially in California racing, but at all these other tracks as well.

Right. There will be standards established for the track itself in the maintenance, making certain that again, the operating grounds are as built to a certain standard. So that, again, accidents and injury injuries can be avoided, as will be the development of the standards that accompany the medication policy as it relates to horses. So, this will be a bit of self-governance by the industry, which I think is important with the implementation of all of this by USADA, the United States Anti-Doping Association, that has done such a strong job in addressing the needs of professional athletes and our Olympians. So this brings into play, I think, a very strong stewardship of rules and regs that will accompany a sport that, again, will aim to keep the equine athletes in the front and center of all the operations.

You've been talking about this bill for quite a long time. What does it do to establish federal oversight specifically over an industry that has so many different state sanctioned rules and operating procedures? And you were just talking about how that would be set in place similar to like the Olympics, but how will that work practically?

Well, I think when you have 38 different settings for standards, that patchwork doesn't serve anyone well, and as so many, a majority of these horses will race and sit in various states, in multiple states and regions in our country, or if not in the world. And so I think It's important for us to have a standard here in the U.S. that says, OK, no matter which state you're traveling to, for a stakes race, these are the standards, you'll know them that familiarity will be stronger because of the standardization. And I think the fairness comes into play for the horse. The implementation again, we'll be very strict and stringent. And I think again, we'll build a sense of strength for the fans. I think sporting fans have many more choices these days. So they're very discerning. And our effort here has been to make this sport as clean as a whistle, and to protect as best possible the equine athlete and we accomplished that with this by addressing the integrity of the of the horses that relates to medication and track safety.

Along those lines, this announcement of McConnell's participation in the Senate bill came out of Kentucky. What is the reaction in New York State and specifically with the New York Racing Association?

I think that the support we had, which included in New York with our original bill, because we will add the amendments that came in the Senate bill, which by the way, were advised at a hearing held by the House on our bill. And so they did add the track safety measures. So we will incorporate those measures, and it only stands, we only stand to gain in support the legislation. New York is still strong, and it's support, and Kentucky is joining in and a number of regions in the country. So I think we will have a bill here that will be acceptable to many forces out there. And I think the industry itself those that we need to build strength into the equation, if you will.

Well, if Leader McConnell is on the bill in the Senate, then we can guess that he supports passage of the full bill in the Senate. What about the House? You mentioned the possibility of getting this done before the end of the year?

Yes, we've been working with the Energy and Commerce Committee on which I'm seated. We have been working with the subcommittee that deals with this particular legislation that will report it to the Standing Committee on Energy and Commerce, we're feeling very strong about it. I think it's a matter of really giving it the push now to be placed as a priority. But I think in terms of acceptance of the legislation, I think it's being developed along the way to a very strong out. It's just prioritizing, if you will, I think that one thing that we're underscoring here is that what we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, is that this pandemic has challenged us to come back strong.

We realize now that many sectors of our economy that have been affected by this, and horse racing certainly is one of those you We have horse racing this year, but without fans. And as we're challenged by this pandemic, to build a stronger economy, block by block, I believe we build a stronger economy for this region by building a stronger horse racing industry. So a stronger economy comes with a stronger sport of horse racing. And it happens by building into this system integrity, so that we have an economic comeback that is stronger, more robust, more just and more sustainable. And I think that's good for our economy, in the region and in the state. It's an industry that has about a $3 billion impact on the state of New York with over 19,000 jobs. And again, is a offers offensive destination for our upstate region here in the 20th congressional district, and certainly offers a glimpse of history and heritage with the sport.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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