The Washington Perspective
James J. Hickey Jr. James J. Hickey Jr. - President, The American Horse Council

Ogden Mills Phipps: Jay Hickey has been at the helm of the American Horse Council in Washington since 1993. And we're very grateful today that Jay is here to give us a report on what is happening in Washington.


James J. Hickey Jr.: Thank you, Dinny. And thank you for allowing me to participate in this year's Round Table.

The last three months have been a tough time for the racing and breeding community. We have been the focus of a great deal of publicity since the Triple Crown regarding medication, steroids, breeding practices, safety measures, and breakdowns. Almost all of it has been bad.

Newspapers, magazines, talk shows, and the blogs have painted racing and breeding in an unfavorable light. Many charges have been emotional and sensational.

I am not suggesting that we are above criticism or that we do not deserve it. We do. And we brought most of it on ourselves.

But little of it has been balanced, objective or even factual.

Often overlooked or ignored are the many actions that the industry has been taking over the past several years with regard to standardized penalties, steroids, safety measures, drug research and detection, injury reporting, track surfaces and veterinary research on injuries.

I think it's important to point out that many of those reforms in those areas were begun well before the Triple Crown this year.

And you will hear about more of those actions from the other speakers on the panel today.

I am really here today to talk about Washington, D.C., and the interest that Congress has taken in our sport.

Here is some testimony before Congress from a representative of the Humane Society of the United States:

"The racing industry has had more than 20 years to discuss, to modify and to improve the drug control problem. The drug problems at our nation's race tracks are significant. All types of drugs, legal and illegal, are widely used to manipulate betting odds, relieve pain so injured or unfit horses may compete, fix races, and deceive potential buyers in claiming races."

That was not offered in June of this year; that was said 27 years ago!

As Yogi Berra would say, "It's déjà vu all over again."

I addressed The Jockey Club Round Table audience that same year about the last Congressional go-around and the topic that day centered primarily on drugs and medication.

As I prepared for this talk, I reviewed the American Horse Council files for that period. I was struck by how similar the issues and circumstances surrounding the call for federal legislation then are to the issues and circumstances today.

The reasons put forth for the need for federal involvement were the same then as they are now:

  • Medication corrupts racing
  • Medication leads to injuries to horses and jockeys
  • Medication is inhumane and misleads the betting public
  • The industry cannot deal with the problem by itself

The proponents of federal intervention are basically the same too:

  • The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and other welfare groups
  • Several committed members of Congress
  • Individual horse owners and veterinarians

But there are several important differences - some bad and some good.

For starters, it's been 28 years since that initial federal salvo was fired and unfortunately the question still can be asked, "How far have we progressed?"

In 1981, the general public was only somewhat interested in these issues.

The public is very interested now and it is not sympathetic to the industry following the breakdowns of Barbaro, Eight Belles and George Washington in big, televised races. Overwhelmingly, the accompanying articles and reports in the media are critical of racing and breeding. Several recent studies have shown that a large percentage of the public does not care if horse racing survives.

The focus on the steroid problems of other sports are in the news and before Congress and have spilled over onto our industry also.

But there is also a positive difference and I believe it is perhaps the most important difference. The industry is actively and successfully working on many of the reforms called for by the proponents of federal legislation.

There is a far different mindset in the industry today than there was then, or even five years ago. There is a clearer understanding of the need to address our welfare, medication, and safety issues and a real resolve to fix them. Those working on those issues daily see this and feel this.

Did the tragedy of Eight Belles and the focus that brought from the public, media and Congress sharpen that will? Of course it did.

But the will was already there and the process well underway even before this year's Triple Crown.

These issues are complicated. Solutions must be based on research and must be fair, enforceable and practical for all. They cannot be resolved in public debate through the media or even in the halls of Congress with its high-glare lighting.

But Congress has once again interjected itself into our sport. On June 19, the Subcommittee on of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing entitled, "Breeding, Drugs and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Racing and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred Racehorse."

Several people in the room today testified at the hearing and divergent views were expressed.

At that hearing, some individuals and members of Congress argued that the industry could not solve its own problems because there is no central authority to do so. They maintained that federal legislation is the only solution.

It was suggested before, during and after the hearing that the Interstate Horseracing Act be amended to require minimum state standards on medication, steroids and other guidelines for drug control and uniformity in the 38 racing jurisdictions. Indeed, even some in the racing and breeding community think that federal intervention is the way to go.

Several members of Congress at the hearing offered to "work with industry leaders" on standards to ensure there is a strong and safe racing industry. That's the carrot.

The stick is that if a state does not adopt such minimum standards, that state's racing industry could not offer interstate wagering under the Interstate Horseracing Act.

While it has been suggested that those standards would basically involve a banning of steroids while racing, I believe it is very possible that other provisions could be imposed on the industry during the legislative process.

Indeed some provisions have already been floated, including standards regarding track surfaces, additional safety requirements, funding for jockeys' and grooms' insurance and backstretch housing and services, additional testing for drugs, a system to track horse and jockey injuries, regulation of breeding practices, and funding for the rescue and retirement of horses.

Some of these are very commendable ideas, but do we want them mandated by the federal government with an accompanying mandate that they be funded through the wagering handle?

Once there is a federal presence in racing, it is unlikely that Congress would be shy about using its influence. The Interstate Horseracing Act would be the entrée for additional hearings into any future racing issues that might arise.

This legislation would be more than the proverbial camel's nose under the tent; it would make the federal government our partner.

And don't think that passage of federal legislation is an easy or even painless solution. The process could be worse than the alleged cure. The legislative process is not suited to a debate of complex, technical issues. How many feel that the picture of the racing and breeding industry that was painted by the recent Congressional hearing was an accurate depiction of the industry and the reforms it has undertaken at this time?

Also, remember that the proponents and their supporters may not have our best interests at heart. There will be many opportunities for mischief and ultimately we may not be able to control what the final legislation would look like.

Remember, this is not a narrow amendment repealing or clarifying an esoteric provision of federal law that might be offered at an opportune time by a friendly member of Congress. We are talking about an amendment to the Interstate Horseracing Act, clearly the most important federal legislation affecting the horse racing industry.

There are those in our industry that want it changed. There are those in other gambling industries that would like it changed. Clearly, the Department of Justice has an interest in the Act, and a different view of the Act's scope than ours.

That interest by the department was regularly expressed over the 11 years it took to pass the Internet gambling legislation.

Each of these interests would be ready to jump on the legislative train as it moved down the Congressional track, and there are plenty of stations along the way for more freight to be added.

We should all remember what Senator Mac Mathias of Maryland said in 1980 about the previous federal legislation:

"The last thing the horsemen of this country need is the muscle of the Federal government in their stable."

That was good advice then and it is good advice now.

There are other alternatives to federal legislation at this time. Despite what some are suggesting, this industry has the mechanisms in place to act and it is doing so. What is important are the results, not the process.

As difficult as this self-regulatory process may be, much progress as has been made and we must continue to press for sensible, comprehensive and workable solutions of our own making and our own time. But we must continue to make progress.

Until we succeed in implementing reform, Congressional pressures will not go away.

But that should not be our primary motivation.

We should make changes for the sake of our horses, we should make changes for the sake our fans, and we should make changes for the sake our industry. We should not make changes because we're afraid of what Congress may do if we don't.

But again, we should make the changes.

In 1980, Nick Brady, then chairman of The Jockey Club, spoke about the federal legislation at the Round Table Conference. He said:

"It is becoming increasingly obvious that we are at war on the issue of medication - at war with the humane associations, at war with the public and the media, at war with Congress, and even at war among ourselves. We will lose the war by default if every organization in racing continues to forge its own consensus on medication. The time has come for us to end our internal disputes and work together to find an equitable solution to this problem."

I think Mr. Brady would agree that the statement no longer accurately describes the industry's situation today. We are still at war, but no longer among ourselves. There is détente, although there may still be a few skirmishes to be fought. But that is still good advice.

Every organization in the industry must continue to work together to ensure that we make the necessary reforms.

If something is going to get signed, it would be much better if it were a "peace treaty" among industry organizations initialed at Saratoga or Keeneland or Del Mar, not a piece of federal legislation in the halls of Congress.

Thank you very much for your attention.

Ogden Mills Phipps: Thank you, Jay.

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