DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There are the mint juleps. There are the fancy hats. There's all the money, those big bets people throw down. But behind the glitz of the Kentucky Derby tomorrow, there is actually a debate happening in horse racing. It is all about doping and whether certain drugs should be given to horses on race days. As Erica Peterson from member station WFPL reports, this issue has made it all the way to Congress.
ERICA PETERSON, BYLINE: It's a cool spring morning, just about dawn, at Churchill Downs a few days before the Derby. Exercise riders on gleaming racehorses trot past the barns for a workout. Some horses have already finished and are being hosed down. They're so warm, steam rises off their backs when the water hits. These horses, or as some call them, equine athletes, would be affected by a bill in Congress that would bring a national set of standards to the industry and also create an independent authority to handle drug testing in horses. But that's not what has some on the front lines most concerned, including Buff Bradley.
BUFF BRADLEY: I'm a breeder, owner, trainer, everything. Yeah.
PETERSON: Bradley is standing on a wooden platform at Churchill Downs watching the top Derby contenders work out.
BRADLEY: The number-one issue is that, you know, eliminating race-day Lasix.
PETERSON: First of all, in this case Lasix has nothing to do with a corrective eye surgery. It's a drug that prevents exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. That's when the intense exertion during a race causes bleeding in a horse's lungs. And in many states, this bleeding can disqualify a horse from competing. So there's a big incentive for trainers to make sure their horses don't bleed, ever.
BRADLEY: I don't like calling Lasix a drug. It's a medication.
PETERSON: That's why the U.S. horses are allowed to get a shot of Lasix four hours before they run. And trainer Ian Wilkes says these days almost every horse gets it as a preventative measure.
IAN WILKES: The cruelty of seeing a horse - gosh, you know, you don't want to see that. So my thing with Lasix is, there's no question.
PETERSON: But Lasix has a side effect. Taking it can make a horse drop about 25 pounds of water weight. This can give a horse an advantage during a race, or potentially mask other serious health conditions. Shawn Smeallie is the executive director of the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, the group advocating for the bill.
SHAWN SMEALLIE: It definitely is a medication for horses that bleed, but I don't know what you call it for horses that use it that don't bleed. So I mean, just clearly the fact that a first-time Lasix user, you put it in the daily racing form, right, to me shows that there's a performance-enhancing value to this.
PETERSON: He points out race-day Lasix is banned in every major racing jurisdiction outside the United States. The bill in Congress, the Horse Racing Integrity Act, would bring that ban to the U.S. Besides the Lasix issue, the bill's supporters say it would ensure that horse testing in the U.S. would be to the same strict standards as human Olympic athletes and also ensure confidence in America's racing and betting industries. Terri Burch, with the Equine Industry Program at the University of Louisville, says the tradition-steeped industry has always been resistant to change.
TERRI BURCH: States don't want to give up their rights, and that's what it all really boils down to.
PETERSON: A number of industry groups oppose the bill, including the company that operates the Kentucky Derby. But the companies that own the Pimlico and Belmont racetracks, the second and third legs of the Triple Crown, support the bill, creating this split in the horse racing industry. So when the 144th derby is run on Saturday, it will be under a Kentucky-specific set of rules.
For NPR News, I'm Erica Peterson in Louisville.
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