Saratoga Springs

U.S. Senate approves Tonko-sponsored Horse Racing Integrity Act

Horses make the final turn at Saratoga Race Course this past racing season.
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Horses make the final turn at Saratoga Race Course this past racing season.

Categories: News, Saratoga County

SARATOGA SPRINGS — A bipartisan bill to set the first nation-wide standards for thoroughbred horse racing is just a presidential signature away from becoming law, after being sponsored by the congressman who represents Saratoga Race Course.

The U.S. Senate on Monday night passed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act as part of its year-end federal government funding package by a 92-6 vote. It needs only President Donald Trump’s signature to become law.

With prime sponsorship from local congressman Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, it passed the House of Representatives in September.

Trump is expected to sign the funding package quickly, because of the need to keep government funded through Sept. 30.

The bill, a rare point of agreement between Tonko and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, sets national standards for the thoroughbred racing industry, which is now subject to an uneven patchwork of regulations, depending on the state. McConnell’s Kentucky is synonymous with thoroughbred breeding, and is home to Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is run annually.

“With the leadership of Congressman Andy Barr, R-Kentucky, and the partnership of sport leaders, horse advocates, and fans, we’re one step closer to promoting fairness and safety across thoroughbred racing,” McConnell said in a press release. “As Majority Leader, I made this Kentucky-focused legislation a top priority in the Senate. I look forward to this major advancement for our beloved sport becoming law.”

McConnell’s statement gave credit to both Tonko and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., as original sponsors of the legislation, along with Barr, in the House, and Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-California, in the Senate. Tonko and Barr first produced a bill in 2015, and had sought support for it ever since.

“For six years now, I have worked in a bipartisan fashion with my friend and partner in this effort, Congressman Andy Barr, to reform this noble sport to ensure it can continue to provide good jobs and support economic vitality in Saratoga Springs and communities like it throughout the nation,” Tonko said. “Our Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act does this by putting the well-being of our horses and jockeys front and center, delivering commonsense medication reforms and track safety standards that will restore public trust and confidence.”

Tonko’s 20th Congressional District includes Saratoga Race Course, as well as some of the farms that support it. Racing is a $200 million industry in the Capital Region in a normal year when fans can attend the track. The owners, trainers and employees still had a big economic impact this past summer, though racing took place without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am delighted to see our legislation finally reach the winner’s circle and I look forward to ensuring a strong implementation of these new standards so that the sport of horseracing can thrive for generations to come,” Tonko said.

Assuming it becomes the law, the act will lead to development and implementation of uniform national horse-racing medication and racetrack safety standards. It will ban race-day medications for all thoroughbreds, and set up an independent commission to make recommendations on issues like the use of medications that some people regard as performance-enhancing drugs during equine training.

The New York Racing Association, which operates Saratoga Race Course as well as the Belmont and Aqueduct tracks downstate, supported the legislation, which is expected to strengthen racing standards in states where regulation is lighter than in New York, and lead to improvements in places where enforcement of rules is more lax.

“This is a monumental step forward that will help secure the future of thoroughbred racing in the United States,” said Dave O’Rourke, NYRA’s president and CEO. “For the first time, the sport will have a unified set of national safety and integrity standards to replace an outdated system that relied on patchwork regulation.”

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