The Bridge to Nowhere: The Integrity of a Horse Act

A new horse racing bill that has been introduced to the Senate could have long-lasting effects on the sport if approved.

Updated: Aug. 13, 2019 • 7:25 PM ET

The Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2019 has been introduced to the U.S. Senate.

In the midst of her 2020 presidential campaign, New York junior senator Kirsten Gillibrand (who is currently being shuffled to the rear of the pace setters) found time this summer to introduce a bill that could have a far-reaching effect on the state of horse racing as we know it.

I was doing some light reading the other day, perusing the some 44-page version of her bill that has become known as the Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2019 (S.1820).

Not exactly the best way to spend a Friday night.

There is much to unpack in this pulp and as I read the droll prose, I was reminded of that old cartoon from Schoolhouse Rock: “I’m Just a Bill on Capitol Hill.” Damn tune; envision this one trotting from the south wing to the north on the Hill. Based on an earlier version that has stalled in the House, this incarnation has merit; but I was left feeling perplexed and confused concerning its objectivity.

When I read that the Federal Trade Commission, a regulatory agency, would tangentially be involved in this enterprise, I became even more skeptical. Given their own history of interference during what became known as the “Aspirin Wars” during the 1950s and ‘60s, they will only muddy the waters here.

But, before we talk about this Bill, first a word from our sponsor.

The advocates of this plan believe that horse racing needs regulation when it comes to medications that impact performance, i.e. Lasix. They are particularly concerned that international standards are far outpacing North American ones. Since individual state authorities have a stranglehold on enforcing their own rules, it’s difficult to get them to conform to any national standards. Horse racing is made up of a group of loose affiliations and with federal oversight, the lobby believes they can save horses’ lives and stamp out doping.

OK, I’m listening because I agree that medications need to go.

This past week, we finally heard from a group of trainers that offered their support for the bill. They include some prominent names, including Todd Pletcher, John Sadler, Gary Contessa and Graham Motion, just to name a few.

As a matter of interest, I mused on the question of just how many of these trainers read every word of this Bill? Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t. You would like to think that if they endorsed something like this, in turn, it would be something important to read, wouldn’t you? At this point, I am unsure.

Reading the bill, I found several places where more questions arose than answers. I kept envisioning how this would get started and who would serve as the authority? Further still, as with any organization that is connected to Washington politics, would it be open to manipulation, graft and corruption? Here are three sub-sections I found concerning.

First, there was the portion that discussed the selection of those that would wield the sword of decision-making. I found the language vague and lacking specificity.

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For instance, see Page 14, line 11, where it says “Selection Methodology.” Read “No. 2” just below, which attempts to sound open-minded:

(2) endeavor to provide diversity among the Board’s membership between persons primarily involved  with the 3 breeds of racehorses, to the greatest extent practicable and consistent with the standards for Board membership set forth in this section;

For me, the word “endeavor” is interesting. Does that mean that standards are intimately tied to the diversity of the Board? What if the process cannot find a good balance of it? Does that mean it will have any less authority?

The next section I had trouble with deals with the issue of testing (see page 32, line 8, where it says “Selection of Laboratories by States.”

(3) SELECTION OF LABORATORIES BY STATES. — Each State racing commission, if it so elects, shall determine the laboratory to be used in testing samples taken within its jurisdiction, provided that the laboratory selected has been accredited by, and complies with the testing protocols and standards established by, the Authority.

(4) SELECTION OF LABORATORIES BY THE AUTHORITY. — If a State racing commission does not elect to determine the laboratory to be used in testing samples taken within its jurisdiction, the Authority shall by rule, make the selection.

As you can see, there’s a fair amount of discretion when it comes to which laboratories can be used. What if states choose labs that can be manipulated, or ones that they know can pass horses through the testing process?

Certain organizations can be corrupted. What will be the failsafe if this testing can be altered? And for that matter, how will the Board have the authority to make a judicious decision if they have no knowledge of which laboratories are clean and which can be trusted?

Lastly, when I got to the end of S.1820, I was alarmed by the final section dealing with the allocation of money (Page 40, Line 9). As I read, the words “loans” and “donations” reverberated off the page.

Loans and donations, what the…? I was stunned.

With any government agency that controls the purse strings, budgets are always convoluted things. They’re bound by politics, and thus, susceptible to corruption.

You cannot convince me that there is one of these entities today that has any merit or substantial success when it comes to fulfilling its mission. Questions abound: how will it be paid back? Will mounting debts swamp the Board, and who will decide when the debt becomes insurmountable?

I’m agog.

All this talk of graft and corruption reminds me of the Gravina Island Bridge near Ketchikan, Alaska. Do you recall the “Bridge to Nowhere?” The funding was the offspring of pork barrel politics when a Senator and Congressman from that giant state concocted a scheme to build a multi-million-dollar bridge to an island that had few inhabitants. Federal money would be allocated, and the taxpayers would be forced to pay the tab. There was a ferry, mind you, but it was deemed inefficient. So, the foundations were laid for a bridge, but it never got off the ground. Waste and fleecing monopolized the plan, and it was summarily scrapped.

I find the Horse Racing Integrity Act to be a bridge to nowhere. Full of holes, it’s a half-baked plan that is poorly conceived and not the approach to the problem of doping that the sport is grappling with right now.

Again, I wonder, did you really read it, Todd Pletcher? How about you John Sadler? Et tu?

To put it another way, will this industry that is so localized, and yet full of brilliant minds, continue to promote a plan where federal regulation seems to be the only answer?

I shudder to think that once this “authority” is set in motion (not by Graham), we will be creating more problems than we solve — in the end, going nowhere.

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