racetrack ambulance

An equine ambulance, and one for humans, move out ahead of the starting gate during a 2019 race at Keeneland.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The biggest breakthrough for the sport of horse racing in this unusual Kentucky Derby week will not be on the track, but in the halls of congress.

After five years of bipartisan efforts to push through legislation that would establish race-day medication bans and other safety measures, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday announced that he will introduce compromise legislation that brings together the sport's various groups and key stakeholders to make sweeping changes in the way horse racing is administered in the United States.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act is to be introduced by McConnell in September in the Senate, with Kentucky Congressman Andy Barr introducing the companion bill in the House of Representatives.

Earlier this year, McConnell gathered leaders from Keeneland, Churchill Downs, the Breeders' Cup, The Jockey Club, Belmont Park, Pimlico and other leaders in the sport to develop a solution for the sport, which has been under fire in recent years for widespread doping and horse deaths.

The indictment of 37 trainers and veterinarians in March of 2020 was the latest black eye for the industry, which sees hundreds of horses die at racetracks each year, and has faced increasing criticism.

Few critics have been more determined than Marty Irby, a lifelong horseman and executive director of Animal Wellness Action, who has testified before Congress on the issue of equine safety and has long lobbied for federal intervention.

"The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act will bring 16 hands of integrity back to American horseracing by banning race-day doping," Irby said. "U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others are right to press the industry to create a uniform anti-doping standard that will protect the horses and the sport against the worst impulses of some of its actors."

McConnell said he was moved to action because of the importance of the sport to the state of Kentucky.

The legislation will aim to create uniform performance and safety standards for the sport by establishing a Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, which will be a private, independent, self-regulatory, nonprofit organization. It will not be funded by the federal government -- the horseracing industry will pay the funds necessary for the establishment and administration of the Authority. The Authority will be tasked with developing and implementing both a horseracing anti-doping and medication control program and a racetrack safety program.

The authority will be governed by a board of directors consisting of nine members. Five of those members will be independent of the industry, and four will be representatives of owners and breeders, trainers race tracks, veterinarians, state racing commissions and jockeys. The board will establish an anti-doping and medication control standing committee and a racetrack safety standing committee, both controlled by independent members outside the industry. All independent members of the Board and standing committees will be subject to strict conflict-of-interest standards.

"Kentucky is proud of our distinct horse racing traditions," McConnell said. "We must address the challenges the sport faces so we can preserve our heritage and the jobs of over 24,000 Kentuckians who support it. As Senate Majority Leader, I look forward to working with Congressman Barr and our colleagues across the aisle on our legislation to give federal recognition to the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. Together, we can better protect every competitor and give each of them a fair shot at the Winner's Circle."

Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Associated released a statement Monday saying, in part, that McConnell has failed to consult with anyone within the horse industry on his planned legislation:

Today, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced his plans to introduce legislation that purports to set national standards to promote fairness, transparency, and increased safety in Thoroughbred racing.

Senator McConnell claims to have found compromise within the industry, yet no representative horsemen’s groups, horseplayers or veterinary leadership organizations seem to have been consulted in the collaboration. The National HBPA represents close to 30,000 owners and trainers who want nothing more than increased safety and integrity to secure the strength of the business and our industry.

The greatest concern of the National HBPA is protecting the health and safety of horses. If Senator McConnell is serious about hearing from tens of thousands of real Kentuckians, as well as horsemen across the country, we stand ready to meet with him. We certainly hope he will meet with us since those pushing this bill have mischaracterized the industry and our views in the past.

As CEO, I can tell you we were never consulted on the recently-announced Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. Contrary to an erroneous statement made by another elected official at today’s announcement, the HBPA was not made aware of any “compromise” negotiations until a deal had already been reached, nor has the Board of the National HBPA even been asked for its support.

Because the legislative text has not yet been released, the National HBPA will reserve final judgement, but we caution our elected leaders to not be misled by the wealthy few who continue to promote federal legislation in service to their own, private interests. Based on what we heard today, we are concerned these elite few continue to hold the reins.

Eric J. Hamelback

CEO, The National HBPA

Previous attempts to move legislation through congress stalled, in part because of concerns expressed by Churchill Downs. Its involvement in today's announcement in Lexington was a key in the bills moving forward. Along with Barr, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) , Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) have been pivotal in efforts to push previous legislation.

"Today's announcement is the culmination of years of work and negotiation to develop uniform racing standards under one independent regulatory body," Barr said. "The future of the sport depends on fair competition, a level playing field across state lines, as well as the safety and welfare of our equine and human athletes. Now is the time for the horseracing industry to embrace change that will attract a new generation of fans and solidify the future of this special sport. I want to thank Leader McConnell for his partnership on this effort and I look forward to moving this legislation across the finish line."

The announcement was greeted with widespread support throughout the industry, and among many animal rights groups.

"Senate Majority Leader McConnell has stepped up to end widespread doping in American horseracing and to address racetrack safety, the key contributing factors to fatalities on American racetracks," Kitty Block, CEO of the Humane Society of the U.S., said. "We cannot continue to look the other way when a racehorse is severely injured or killed during training or a race. This measure will advance necessary reforms that will make or break horseracing in the United States."

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