ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Tom Udall on Monday revived his push for uniform federal standards aimed at making the horse racing industry safer following a New York Times investigation into a deadly and debilitating year — for both horses and jockeys — at tracks in New Mexico and elsewhere around the country.
Udall, D-N.M., said the newspaper’s findings paint a “very disturbing” picture of the industry in the United States and New Mexico in particular.
“The sport of horse racing which, at its best, showcases the majestic beauty of this animal and the athleticism of jockeys, has reached an alarming level of corruption and exploitation,” Udall said in a statement.
The senator pointed to the need for a federal role in a sport where problems of doping and countless euthanizations have been exacerbated by inconsistent regulations at the state level.
The Times’ analysis showed that on average, 24 horses die each week at racetracks across America. A computer analysis of data from more than 150,000 races, along with injury reports, drug test results and interviews, showed an industry mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation and a fatal breakdown rate that remains far worse than in most of the world.
The Times’ analysis also found that five of the six tracks with the highest rate of incidents per 1,000 starts last year were in New Mexico — Ruidoso Downs, Sunland Park, Zia Park, The Downs in Albuquerque and SunRay Park.
“The Times expose has shined a glaring light on the need for national standards in a sport that reaps gambling profits, but has lacked proper oversight for decades,” Udall said.
Udall and Republican Congressman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky introduced legislation last spring seeking to impose a national ban on performance-enhancing drugs in horse racing.
Despite voluntary reforms offered by the industry over the years, Udall said legislation is the “only viable way” to address doping problems within the sport.
Under the legislation, any person with three doping violations would be permanently banned from horse racing. A horse that tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs three times would receive a ban of at least two years.
The legislation was first introduced last April. It came three years after some in the industry urged the federal government to get involved, following the death of Eight Belles at the 2008 Kentucky Derby.
A drug test proved that the horse was clear of steroids, but the incident helped shine a light on safety problems and the lack of a single governing body. Rick Dutrow, trainer of the Derby winner Big Brown, acknowledged he regularly injected the horse with the then-legal steroid stanozolol.
Most states have banned steroids, but enforcement has been uneven.
In New Mexico, the state Racing Commission recently imposed a yearlong ban on clenbuterol for thoroughbreds and quarter horses. Clenbuterol’s use picked up as a means to help horses build muscle after the industry did away with anabolic steroids in 2008. High doses can have adverse effects and even cause death.
But there are plenty of other medications and concoctions that are used, and the Times’ investigation accused New Mexico’s tracks and regulators of being unusually slow in responding to safety alarms.
Vince Mares, the director of the commission, did tell The Times that the previous leadership at the commission had cut back on tests for one pain medication due to financial reasons and that his agency needs more uniform penalties to avoid charges of favoritism among trainers.
“There is an issue of consistency — you can quote me on this,” Mares said. “It is being addressed.”
New Mexico’s 2012 season begins April 20 at SunRay Park and Casino in Farmington.
Thousands of races are held each season in New Mexico, where tracks operate anywhere from 42 days to more than two months. Blood and urine samples are taken from the winner and a randomly chosen horse from each race to ensure the state’s doping rules are being followed.