SARATOGA SPRINGS — With thoroughbred horse racing under nearly unprecedented public scrutiny following horse deaths, local U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko on Thursday renewed his call for adopting national standards for medications and other issues now regulated by states.
Tonko's proposed Horseracing Integrity Act would ban race-day medications for all thoroughbreds, and set up an independent commission to make recommendations on issues like the use of equine medications, which some people regard as performance-enhancing drugs, during training.
"It is a national sport so it needs a national response when it comes to standards," Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said at a press conference outside the clubhouse entrance to Saratoga Race Course. "This will allow greater integrity and safety for our equine athletes."
The New York Racing Association and many others in the industry support the legislation, which Tonko hopes to bring to a vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee this fall, and a floor vote by the end of the year.
The bill has bipartisan support. Tonko is a co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Andy Barr, a Kentucky Republican. They currently have 136 co-sponsors, including North Country U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville. Tonko first proposed the legislation in 2015, and re-introduced it this past March.
The racing industry, which generates about $15.6 billion in economic activity nationally and more than $3 billion in New York state, has faced new scrutiny over horse safety following the deaths of more than 30 horses over the winter and spring at Santa Anita in California.
"[The public] has spoken out for a common-sense solution," Tonko said. "I believe this bill does that."
The Saratoga Race Course and backstretch has seen nine equine deaths since the training season started in April, with three fatalities considered non-racing by the state Gaming Commission, and only one death due to a breakdown while racing on the main track. There are more than 1,000 horses stabled at the track during the July and August racing season.
Nick Zito, a Hall of Fame trainer who has been winning major stakes races for nearly three decades and is a regular at the Saratoga meet, acknowledged the pressure the industry is facing to make racing safer.
"What we do, we do to fix the sport," said Zito, one of the best-known trainers in the nation. "I really believe at this time in our future as horse racing. There are so many people in this industry who want to do the right thing."
NYRA, which operates the Saratoga track, forbids all race-day medications except Lasix, which is widely used to control capillary bleeding. Race day drug standards vary but state, even though about half of all thoroughbreds are raced in more than one state.
"We at NYRA applaud the effort toward uniform regulations," said Patrick McKenna, NYRA's director of communications.
Shawn Smeallie, executive director of the Coalition for Horseracing Integrity, said one goal is to improve equine safety by bringing regulation to the use of drugs while horses are in training -- something that is largely unregulated now.
Thoroughbred owners Arthur and Staci Hancock said national standards are necessary. Arthur Hancock comes from a major horse-breeding family, and he and his wife own Stone Farm, a 2,000-acre breeding farm in Kentucky. Staci Hancock is a leader in the Water Hay Oats Alliance, which seeks to end the use of performance-enhancing drugs in horse racing through federal legislation.
"For what we're doing here, there is no alternative," Arthur Hancock said. "This is a great bill and I hope we can all get behind it."
Hancock said banning race-day medications would bring North American racing to the same standard as most of the rest of the world, which bans medications for 24 hours ahead of races.