By Marty Irby
In 1969, Bill Hartack, the famed jockey, and son of Pennsylvania born in clover, saddled up to win an eight-length victory at the Santa Anita Derby on Majestic Prince.
That win propelled the team to go on and win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes that year – the first legs of the Triple Crown. But the team fell short of clinching the Crown, finishing second in the Belmont Stakes.
As the 50th anniversary of Hartack’s win approaches at the upcoming Santa Anita Derby in a few weeks, there is something of a pall over the sport. Since the end of December, 22 horses have died on the track this year. One might ask if horse racing itself has fallen short in protecting both the horses, and the jockeys in our modern-day society.
In an attempt to prevent any recurrence of this spate of horse deaths, The Stronach Group, owners of Santa Anita Park and other top tracks in America, made a forward-looking announcement to end the use of drugs and whips at the track.
It’s a move certain to spark a reaction from unscrupulous trainers and veterinarians who profit from widespread doping, but it’s actually an attempt not only to help the horses, but to save the sport.
The new policy to ban drugs and whipping came on the heels of the introduction of the Horseracing Integrity Act, (H.R. 1754), by U.S. Reps. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., and Andy Barr, R-Ky., who represent two of the meccas of horse racing: Saratoga Springs, New York, and Lexington, Kentucky.
The Horseracing Integrity Act would protect American racehorses through the establishment of a national, uniform standard for drugs and medication in horse racing.
It would also grant drug rulemaking, testing, and enforcement oversight to a private, non-profit, self-regulatory independent organization overseen by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) – the governing body that administers the Olympic anti-doping program, and it’s supported by a raft of industry allies including The Jockey Club, the Stronach Group, the New York Racing Association, the Breeders’ Cup, and Water, Hay, Oats Alliance, along with numerous other tracks, and animal protection groups from across the nation.
But one of the few major tracks that hasn’t come on board to end doping and support the legislation is Penn National, and the need for this legislation in Pennsylvania is all too obvious.
In 2016, Murray Rojas, two-time Penn National leading trainer, was convicted for misbranding medications and of criminal conspiracy.
During the trial, rival trainer Stephanie Beattie cooperated with authorities and made some stunning admissions. Under oath, Beattie stated that “almost everybody” illegally treated horses on race day at Penn National, placing the percentage at “95 to 98 percent.”
In 2013, Pennsylvania trainer David Wells was indicted on multiple felony counts of fraud, related to his routine administration of prohibited substances to horses on race day during a four-year period from 2008-2012. Wells pleaded guilty to the charge of rigging a publicly exhibited contest in 2014.
Given the gravity of these criminal violations and their impact on the perception of racing at Penn National, one must wonder why has Penn National Gaming (PNG) has failed to support a bill that would correct most of these problems, when attempt after attempt from industry groups, and animal protection organizations have been made to garner PNG’s support.
In addition to Penn National, PNG’s other four Thoroughbred racetrack properties represent a significant part of the Thoroughbred racing landscape, accounting for approximately 10 percent of the nearly 300,000 Thoroughbred starts logged each year.
Additionally, PNG recently purchased Pinnacle Entertainment Inc., a casino operator that also manages Thoroughbred racetracks, thus further expanding PNG’s investment in the racing industry.
In a business built on consumer confidence that the sport is clean, and the games are fair, PNG should certainly appreciate the importance of embracing integrity initiatives like H.R. 1754 to attract and retain customers.
The gaming giant’s silence has had a chilling effect on Pennsylvania lawmakers signing on to this important, pro-animal, pro-horse racing legislation.
Penn National Gaming should finally get on board, but regardless of where the track stands, Pennsylvania’s usually ardently pro-animal Congressional delegation should saddle up and cosponsor the legislation.
Penn National Gaming should recognize that the future health of horse racing is linked to the integrity and consumer confidence in the sport.
In a sport with no national commissioner, racetracks must take a leadership role, and now is the time for PNG to step up and endorse The Horseracing Integrity Act, and to urge the Pennsylvania delegation to get behind this life-saving and industry-saving legislation.
Marty Irby is the executive director of Animal Wellness Action, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, and an 8-time world champion equestrian rider.