House Examines Thoroughbred Racing

Horses

Da'Tara, Macho Again, and Big Brown at the start of the Belmont Stakes on June 7, 2008. Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Drugs, gambling and horse deaths are at issue today when Congress considers thoroughbred racing. Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and one of today's witnesses, discusses the state of the sport.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Later this morning, Congress begins another hearing on athletics and doping. This one has nothing to do with Barry Bonds or Marion Jones. Steroids are sometimes legal in thoroughbred horseracing and that is something Congress wants to focus on. The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection holds a hearing today to address questions coming up after the stunning collapse of Triple Crown favorite, Big Brown, two other high-profile horse deaths, the Kentucky Derby runner-up, Eight Belles, and of course, Barbaro.

High-profile deaths in racing certainly focus the public's attention. Are they indicative of the overall risks of the industry? Alex Waldrop is the president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. He joins us from Washington, D.C., where he is about to testify before Congress. Hello, Alex.

Mr. ALEX WALDROP (President and Chief Executive Officer, National Thoroughbred Racing Association): Good morning, Mike.

PESCA: So before I lay out this grab-bag of explanations as to why animals sometimes break down in the sport, let's first acknowledge bad luck comes into play, horse physiology comes into play, because these are 1,000-pound animals on narrow legs, and let's also acknowledge that a lot of progress has been made on saving horses' lives after some leg injuries. It's a lot different than it used to be 20 and 30 years ago. So is there anything else, before we start talking about the practices under fire, that you want to note on the positive side of the horseracing industry?

Mr. WALDROP: Well, you're correct about all of the veterinary medical gains that we've made. Two years ago, we convened something called the Welfare and Safety Summit of the Racehorse, and brought together some of the best veterinary minds in the country, like Wayne McIlwraith, an equine orthopedic surgeon, the top in the world, Mary Scollay, who is helping us develop an injury-reporting system. Without good data, we can't really do a very good job of injury prevention, and that's really our focus going forward, is using medical science and research to really get at the problem of injury prevention. That's where the future is, and that's where our focus is.

PESCA: Some of the things the committee may be looking at today are the use of steroids, breeding practices, use of the whip, maybe they'll even look at the new synth turf that a lot of tracks have gone to, seems to decrease injuries. Which ones are the association most on board with in terms of pointing to - as this could be damaging the health of horses?

Mr. WALDROP: Well, one of the things we've been very outspoken about, and the industry has a strong consensus around it, is the banning of steroids from race-day competition, even training in racehorses. Steroids are - they have a therapeutic benefit for horses. Unlike humans, they are FDA-approved and they are prescribed in certain limited instances. Nonetheless, we have reached the conclusion that they really have no place in the racehorse on race day, and therefore we are pushing for a ban on steroids from competition.

PESCA: Training, I think, is the important thing, though, beyond - because on race day, they don't - I don't think too many trainers would say it really matters on race day, but using Winstrol as a regular part of training is another matter, right?

Mr. WALDROP: Absolutely, and that would be banned as well. What we would be saying is if you use Winstrol - if you think you need to use that drug, then that horse has to come out of competition and that horse can't race. It is - the humane thing to do, in some instances, may be to administer a legally FDA-approved drug. But once you do, that horse has to come out of competition and can't go back into competition until he tests clean. So we're trying to balance all the interests here, but make sure that our competition - that there is no performance-enhancing ability whatsoever relative to steroids in our game.

PESCA: Let's talk about synthetic turf. The statistics - because it's used in a lot of the California tracks, statistics show it does somewhat decrease breakdowns. A lot of the horseracing purists hate it because it does slow the horses down a little bit. What's your industry's stance on synthetic turf?

Mr. WALDROP: Well, we've got, you know, nine tracks have actually gone to synthetic tracks because they believe that it absolutely does decrease the incidence of catastrophic breakdown. Some of the best research that's being done right now is by Dr. McIlwraith, who, together with an exercise physiologist, is developing actually a machine that will test track, whether it's dirt or synthetic, to tell us whether that track is safe, whether it's actually absorbing the impact of the horse's hooves in a way that it should to keep the horses safe.

Some tracks are harder than they need to be, and they send that shock back up into the horse's leg causing micro fractures which, again, over time, can lead to catastrophic breakdown. So coming up with research and scientific data to tell us what constitutes a safe racetrack, whether it be dirt or synthetic, that's what the research is leaning toward right now. We may come to a consensus on synthetic versus dirt. I think we're not there yet. A lot more data needs to be collected, but clearly, the synthetics have worked in a variety of instances, and we've seen dramatic turnarounds in the number of injuries in California and in Kentucky at Keeneland and Turfway Parks.

PESCA: OK. In Europe they - or in prominent tracks in Europe, they can't whip the horses. Maybe this looks worse than it is. Is there any move to talk about jockeys whipping the horses, eliminating that?

Mr. WALDROP: Well, they do allow whips in Europe. They just have a more - they regulate it more closely.

PESCA: Yeah. That's right.

Mr. WALDROP: In fact, just this week, the Jockey Club Safety Committee, which was convened several weeks ago to look at all the safety recommendations that we could make, just came out with a recommendation saying, let's adopt the European model for use of the whip. We're actually going to call it a riding crop, because it's much smaller, much lighter. It doesn't have the ability to injure a horse. In fact, it calls for post-race inspections to make sure that there are no whelps on a horse, so clearly that's one of the things. And we have wide support for that, including jockeys, owners, trainers, horsemen from across the country.

PESCA: Breeding, this is - I mean, probably this is one that's mentioned the most, just that horses are bred for early speed. They don't have the endurance that Omaha and Sir Gallant and those horses of, you know, 70 years ago had. Any truth to that?

Mr. WALDROP: Well, there's very little data supporting a lot of opinion out there. One of the things about the horseracing industry is we all have opinions. The business is based on opinions.

PESCA: That's right.

Mr. WALDROP: And so you have a wide variety of...

PESCA: It's based on betting and saying I think this guy's going to win and you're wrong. Yeah.

Mr. WALDROP: And so there's a lot of opinion about breeding, but the fact is the research that's being looked at right now, there is no - the statistical evidence, so certainly there's no geneticist who's willing to say that the breed is weaker, that this is having any impact. One of the things that will happen today at the hearing, Alan Marzelli, who is the president of the Jockey Club, will be presenting some preliminary research looking at the data over the last 50 years.

And I think he will have some interesting things to say about the lack of any statistical support for a weakening of the breed as we've heard. Certainly, the geneticists don't believe you can weaken a breed. This whole discussion about stamina versus speed is a very technical discussion, and it probably has some application in very general terms to specific horses, but as a causal factor for injuries, I think it's way overplayed.

PESCA: I have to ask the big global question. An economist would say yours is an industry. The industry recognizer should recognize that high-profile tragedies are going to drive people away. It's going to hurt business. Therefore, they'll self-correct like NASCAR did. Your industry's a little more traditional, not as market-sensitive, for instance, as NASCAR. Do you think your industry is going to be able to reform itself and take the necessary steps?

Mr. WALDROP: Well, one of the things the NTRA group that I formed, that I run, was formed to do was to listen to the fans. And we've heard from the fans in no uncertain terms that they want this industry to change, and if there's anything that will get horseracing to change, it's active vocal protests of our fans. And we're hearing that and we're hearing that in spades. I'm seeing more of a will to change in this industry than I have ever seen.

Our health and safety - the issues have risen to the top. They are now our number one priority. The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Safety Committee is just one example of that. We are addressing these issues from top to bottom, and I see a real world of change, and I believe that the fans are driving this change, and that's the way it should be. I see a lot of promise in that, that this industry is finally coming around to the notion that we exist for the fans and not for the participants.

PESCA: Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, is about to testify before Congress. Thank you, Alex.

Mr. WALDROP: Thank you.

PESCA: Coming up, patented BPP Vocab Quiz. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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