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Betting on Change: Horseracing long plagued with scandals and equine fatalities

A new federal law long championed by racing insiders hopes to make the sport cleaner and safer
Published: May. 9, 2022 at 10:13 AM AKDT
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PARIS, Kentucky (InvestigateTV/Gray News) – Long before a string of catastrophic horse deaths at a racetrack in California made headlines and a federal indictment of more than two dozen horseracing insiders rocked the sport, the owner of one of the most famed thoroughbreds was advocating for change.

In 1982, Penny Chenery, the owner of Triple Crown winner Secretariat, was calling for an end to performance-altering drugs in the sport. Horses, she told a Congressional committee, should run only “on their courage.”

It’s taken decades of scandal and the fierce advocacy of the hundreds of owners, breeders, veterinarians and others for the federal government to act.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) takes effect in July and is designed to improve the wellbeing of racehorses with a robust drug-testing program and a focus on equine fatalities at the tracks.

“[Penny] always told me that having a good horse gave you a platform to advocate for our horses. She certainly did. And I have tried to follow in her footsteps,” said Staci Hancock, a long-time friend of Chenery, who died in 2017.

Hancock along with her husband Arthur own Stone Farm in Paris, Kentucky and have long pushed for horseracing reforms through their nonprofit group Water Hay Oats Alliance.

“We want to watch the horses go out on the track and know that each one of those is being treated fairly,” Mrs. Hancock said.

Under the current structure, the regulation of horse racing varies state to state, with officials enacting their own rules and penalties for violations.

InvestigateTV analyzed records from racing regulators in 29 of the 38 states with live racing to dive deep into the current state of affairs and found that:

  • Between 2017 and 2021, those 29 states have tallied at least 4,064 racehorse fatalities.
  • More than two dozen trainers, who supervise the daily care and conditioning of their horses, have lost at least 10 horses in the past five years, including Robert A. Baffert, who trained Medina Spirit, the 2021 Kentucky Derby winning horse who later was disqualified.
  • States have issued more than 4,400 sanctions against trainers and/or owners for drug-related violations during that 5-year period. In one case, the violations were so egregious that the trainer was banned from the sport until 2054 after eight of his horses tested positive for ostarine, a steroid-like drug that has no generally accepted medical use in racehorses.

The new law will make one set of rules for drug testing and penalties that applies in all states. It also will oversee racetrack safety in an attempt to prevent equine fatalities. Races themselves still will be regulated by the states.

“It’s a game changer,” said Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, a Washington, D. C. nonprofit that pushes for animal welfare laws. “The state-by-state patchwork is a tremendous detriment to the industry and to the horses.”

Not all racehorses will be covered by the federal regulations, as of now

But while many see this as the industry turning a corner, the law is not without its detractors.

The U.S. Trotting Association fiercely opposes the law, signed by President Donald Trump in December 2020, as a Constitutional overreach. It has said that its sport – harness racing – will not sign onto the federal oversight despite the objections from many of its members.

The law created an opt-in clause, allowing each type of horseracing to decide if their sport would fall under the federal regulations. Thoroughbreds, which run races with a jockey on their backs and participate in the Triple Crown, will be covered.

Standardbreds, which are the breeds involved in harness racing in which they pull a cart with a driver, will not, as of now. That means the regulation of harness racing will remain with the states.

Three-Column Table Concept Map by Conner Hendricks

The trotting association declined a request for an interview, saying the organization “has opposed HISA for several years now, and our position is widely known.”

In contrast, Steve Stewart, who breeds standardbred horses, has recruited hundreds of owners, trainers, veterinarians and others within the harness racing industry to lobby the trotting association to change its position.

“We need to be united with the thoroughbreds,” he said. “We’re all tied at the hip.”

The Hancocks and Steve and Cindy Stewart share a love of horses.

Both couples have been successful in their sports. The Hancocks have had two Kentucky Derby winners. Horses bred by the Stewarts have won harness racing’s highest honor, the Hamiltonian.

They live across a creek from one another in the idyllic rolling meadows of horse country in Kentucky.

And they share a passion to make their sports successful and clean.

In recent years, horseracing has been besieged by one scandal after another.

First there was the spike in fatalities among thoroughbreds at the Santa Anita track in California in 2017 that gained national attention.

Then came the federal indictment in 2020 alleging a massive doping scheme involving both thoroughbred and harness racing.

A year later, the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit, tested positive for a drug banned on race days and was disqualified. In December, the horse collapsed and died after training in California.

“Anything that the federal government has to get involved with means that you have not done your job,” Stewart said of the new law.

States issue thousands of drug-related violations each year, hundreds go to repeat offenders

When the starting gates opened at a race at Retama Park in Texas in 2018, Financial Top fell into last place, but not for long.

The horse charged down the rain-soaked track and past the other five horses to claim victory. But victory was short lived. A post-race drug test detected the banned substance clenbuteral in the horse’s system, Texas state racing records show.

It was trainer Adrian Huitron’s second drug-related violation in less than 10 days.

Since then, he’s been sanctioned at least a dozen other times by racing officials in Louisiana and Texas for drug-related violations, according to InvestigateTV’s analysis of 4,477 drug-related sanctions issued in 29 of the 38 states with live racing.

Huitron did not respond to requests for comment.

Nearly a third of trainers sanctioned had more than one drug-related violation. Nine have been sanctioned at least 10 times.

“The trainer who gets three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 positives. . . I don’t know if they should be in our game,” Mrs. Hancock said. “The sanctions don’t have teeth. They need to have teeth, serious teeth.”

States fined violators on average of $1,700 and/or suspended them for an average of 64 days, state records show.

After amassing three drug-related violations in a 12-day period last May, Louisiana racing officials last year suspended Huitron for a 6-month period that ended in April.

Huitron also has been sanctioned three times after his horses tested positive for clenbuteral and albuteral, bronchodilators that can help horses with pulmonary issues breathe easier. Both are banned in quarter horse racing.

The Association of Racing Commissioners International says those drugs that have “the potential of affecting the performance of a racing horse.”

Its use is allowed at certain levels in thoroughbred and harness racing, illustrating even the differing regulations among even horseracing breeds.

Of the 20 most commonly detected drugs that led to sanctions, all but three were considered by the international horse racing association as drugs that had a lower potential to affect performance.

But there are at least 299 sanctions for drugs that the association says have little or no therapeutic benefit to horses and have a high potential to affect performance, InvestigateTV’s analysis shows.

Among the class 1 and class 2 drugs detected:

  • Methamphetamine, a central nervous system stimulant commonly called meth that has no generally accepted medical use in horses, was detected 39 times.
  • Caffeine was found in 36 tests.
  • Cocaine showed up in 33 horses.
  • Morphine was detected in 23 cases.
  • Fentanyl was found in nine tests.
Various states have different limits and allowances on the types of drugs that can and cannot...
Various states have different limits and allowances on the types of drugs that can and cannot be used. The ten drugs described here are frequently cited in sanctions.(Meredith Hemphill for InvestigateTV)

Prior to 1968, it was illegal in virtually all racing jurisdictions for a horse to race while medicated, the American Horse Protection Association told a Congressional committee in 1982.

But medication laws began to relax after the 1968 Kentucky Derby winner tested positive for the anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone and was disqualified.

Phenylbutazone is banned in horseracing in every country except for the U.S., which instead imposes dosing limits. Even so, states have issued at least 824 sanctions related to horses testing over the limit for that drug.

Medina Spirit lost his Kentucky Derby crown last year after testing positive for a steroid, betamethasone, which is not allowed on race days in Kentucky.

At least 98 other horses have tested positive for betamethasone in the last five years, state records show.

Critics say the use of medication in horses on race day masks their injuries or illnesses, allowing them to run when they should be resting.

“It has become a race to the bottom where it’s a game of who can out cheat each other, all at the expense of the welfare of the horse,” said Irby, the animal welfare advocate.

There’s also concern about the drugs that are not being detected but are altering performance.

In March 2020, the federal government indicted 27 people in the horseracing industry on conspiracy charges related to performance-enhancing drugs that couldn’t be detected by screenings.

The people were caught, the government said, by tapping their phones. Many have since pleaded guilty or were convicted.

Today, there is no single source of drug-related sanctions, and some states such as Michigan, do not make public the names of trainers punished for violating medication rules.

Under HISA, drug testing and enforcement will be assigned to a single outside agency: Drug Free Sport International, a Kansas City, Missouri-based group that is used by the NCAA, the NFL, the NBA and other professional sports.

The law specifically called for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to take over drug testing. USADA performs drug testing for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and is considered the gold standard. And it publishes on its website the names of athletes who have been sanctioned for drug-related violations; Drug Free Sport does not.

But USADA and the board that oversees HISA couldn’t reach an agreement over the cost of the program.

“I don’t think the horse industry realizes the plight it is in, and it desperately needs the integrity of USADA to help shore up its sad reputation,” Mr. Hancock told the Paulick Report earlier this year. “Cheaters are still cheating, horses are still dying, and public perception is still worsening.”

The decision to hand over testing to Drug Free Sport was a “kick in the gut” to everyone who pushed for years to pass HISA, Irby said.

Drug Free Sport will take over testing and enforcement in January. Until then, states remain in charge of drug testing rules and regulations.

Hundreds of horses die each year during training or racing

Last year, Churchill Downs Inc., banned trainer Karl Broberg from entering races at any of its eight tracks after one of his horses was injured.

Rockandhardplace was declared lame after a race at the Kentucky track.

“A subsequent investigation revealed that there was no responsible representative of the trainer on-site to make veterinary decisions or to take appropriate steps to protect the welfare of the injured horse,” a representative from Churchill Downs told the Paulick Report last September.

By then, 22 horses that Broberg trained had died in the previous four years, state records show.

Reached by phone Broberg declined to comment, saying that he didn’t think horseracing would be portrayed “in a good light.”

In 2019, when he was the winningest trainer in the U.S., 10 of his horses either suffered a catastrophic injury or fracture that resulted in euthanasia. Two just dropped dead. Some of those horses had won more than $250,000 during their careers, according to Equibase.

Trainer Todd A. Pletcher also has lost 22 horses during those five years. Pletcher is a highly decorated trainer who was inducted into the horseracing hall of fame last year. Horses that he trained have won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. He had three horses in this year’s Kentucky Derby; the fastest of his group finished in fifth place, claiming $90,000.

But he’s been suspended during his career, including once in New York after his horse tested positive for a banned drug.

Pletcher did not respond to requests for comment.

No other trainers have lost as many horses as Broberg and Pletcher, according to InvestigateTV’s analysis of state records made available. They also have run horses in thousands of races during their careers: more than 18,100 for Broberg and 23,200 for Pletcher.

Since 2017, at least 4,064 racehorses have died across the U.S.

“That’s what we’ve been fighting against. Look, horse racing is, is a dangerous sport, really,” Mrs. Hancock said. “But that number is not acceptable.”

Nearly a third of the trainers have lost two or more horses during that time frame.

And 27 of them, including Baffert, have lost at least ten horses during those five years. During his career, Baffert has been in more than 13,000 races. Baffert did not respond to requests for comment.

Five trainers have lost 15 horses.

“The deaths . . . are animal abuse in our book,” Irby said.

There is not an official record of the number of racehorses that die in the U.S. each year.

Some states, such as Minnesota, won’t release the names of equine fatalities, citing privacy.

Many states’ records of fatalities are handwritten and hard to decipher. Only a few offered any details about what led to the horses’ death such as Kentucky and Illinois. Most states only provided a cause of death, not an explanation of why.

The vast majority of fatalities involve thoroughbreds or quarter horses. In the past five years, only 99 standardbred horses died, in large part because they don’t run as fast.

HISA is supposed to track equine fatalities from all states to watch for trends at tracks or among trainers in an attempt to prevent future deaths.

In 2019, when a cluster of horseracing deaths at Santa Anita in California brought a slew of attention to the issue, the number of horses that have died nationally decreased in both 2020 and 2021.

Even so, nearly 700 horses died last year.

“They’ve made some changes that have fortunately brought that number down,” Irby said. “Still, one horse death is one death too many.”

Some races have deadly consequences

Four-year-old thoroughbred Cheveyo won only one race in his career: on March 31, 2021 at Delta Downs in Louisiana.

During a race barely two months later at a different Louisiana track, he fractured a leg and had to be euthanized. He never crossed the finish line. After his death, Louisiana racing officials found an over-the-threshold amount of a muscle relaxer in his system.

It was the second time in less than three months his trainer had been sanctioned for a drug violation.

DW Carolina Flash, a 3-year-old quarter horse, fractured a leg during a race at Turf Paradise in Arizona in 219 and had to be euthanized.

A blood test revealed that the horse had nearly four times the allowable level of betamethasone in its system – the same drug that disqualified Medina Spirit, state records show.

Its trainer was fined $1,000 by Arizona racing officials for the drug-related infraction. It was only the fifth race DW Carolina Flash had ever run.

“It’s unacceptable,” said Irby, the animal welfare advocate. “The American people will not tolerate animal abuse, simply for someone to make a $2 bet. And these horses lose their lives at the end of the day.”

Among the 4,064 horse fatalities reviewed by InvestigateTV, 55 of them had failed drug tests at some point in their racing careers, resulting in drug-related sanctions against their trainers.

These examples illustrate the importance of the new law, advocates say.

“I think it’ll be better, better for everybody,” said Stewart, the standardbred breeder. “I think that we’re at the point where there’s too much dirty laundry on the line that you have to show it, and you have to get through it. And you have to deal with it.”

On a chilly spring morning, Steve and his wife Cindy visited one of their pastures on their Hunterton Farm where some of their brood mares and their days’ old foals were grazing.

When the couple opened the gate, the mares and foals swarmed to greet them. By that April morning, 97 foals had been born on Stewart’s farm this year.

“They’re our kids,” Mr. Stewart said. “Because they’re our kids . . . we’re all passionate about our children.”

The Hancocks also are so passionate about the welfare of racehorses that they repurchased their first Kentucky Derby winner, Gato Del Sol, from a breeding operation in Germany, fearing that he would be sold for slaughter.

The decorated horse died at the old age of 28 on the Hancock’s farm.

And that’s the way it should be for racehorses: they run; they feast on water, hay and oats; and then they retire to live to an old age, advocates have long said.

Man O’ War, considered the greatest racehorse of all time, died in 1947 at the age of 30. His grandson, Seabiscuit, also a highly decorated horse, died at the age of 14.

“In the old days, they used water, hay and oats. They didn’t use therapeutic medications. Their horses ran every week,” Mrs. Hancock said. “I think we can, you know, bring our sport back to where it was, during the days of Seabiscuit, Man O’ War, when it was the number one spectator sport.”

She and many others are betting on change.

Students from the Arnolt Center for Investigative Reporting at Indiana University contributed research to this story. They are Meredith Hemphill, Rebecca Benjamin, Olivia Bianco, Salome Cloteaux, Lizzie DeSantis, Maddie Maloy, Andy Manzur, Nathan Moore, Nic Napier, Alex Null, Olivia Oliver, Sarah Rashid, Haley Ryan, Nadia Scharf, Lily Staatz, Emma Uber, Lauren Ulrich and Lily Wray.

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