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MARTY IRBY: Increasing odds for racehorses

by Marty Irby/Special to the Democrat-Gazette | February 16, 2020 at 1:45 a.m.

For more than 100 years, Americans have enjoyed the sport of horseracing in the beautiful Arkansas enclave of Hot Springs. Established in 1904 and owned by the Oaklawn Jockey Club, the organizers at Oaklawn Racing and Gaming adhere to longstanding racing traditions like the Arkansas Derby, Rebel Stakes, King Cotton Stakes, and the Apple Blossom Handicap.

Not long after Republican state Representative Orso Cobb cast the tie-breaking vote to legalize pari-mutuel wagering in the state in 1929, the Arkansas Derby saw a horse named Holl Image claim the top prize in a purse of $5,000.

As the decades passed, the Arkansas Derby and Oaklawn grew, and in 2004, celebrating its 100th anniversary, Oaklawn offered a $5 million bonus to any 3-year-old horse that could make a clean sweep of its Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby, then claim the coveted roses at the Kentucky Derby in Louisville—1,000 times that of its inaugural purse. The famed Smarty Jones claimed victory and cashed he $5 million check.

And in 2015, American Pharoah, the first horse to claim the triple crown of thoroughbred racing in 37 years, began his sprint toward accolades at Oaklawn by claiming victory in both the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby.

But today, American horseracing is in peril, with horses dying as a result of catastrophic falls at alarming rates across the country. Nearly every major media outlet in America has covered the 42 racehorse deaths that have occurred at Santa Anita Park since December 2018, and other tracks around the U.S., primarily due to the rampant doping and abuse of medication plaguing the sport.

Oaklawn has managed to escape that scrutiny for the past few years until recently, when a 4-year-old named Spirogyra was euthanized due to catastrophic injuries—a tragic end to this majestic horse’s ninth race. American horseracing is addicted to drugs, and it’s time for an intervention. No different than in humans, drugging horses can easily lead to death.

But there is hope, with growing support for the Horseracing Integrity Act, H.R. 1754/S. 1820 introduced by U.S. Reps. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), who represents Saratoga Springs, one of the most prominent horseracing districts in the U.S., and Andy Barr (R-Ky.), who hails from Lexington, the “Horse Capitol of the World.”

Along with U.S. Sens. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), and Kirsten Gilli-brand (D-N.Y.), they’ve been working tirelessly to advance the bill; the U.S. House held a hearing recently where I provided testimony in support of the legislation.

This landmark measure is backed by a broad base of industry players which range from the Jockey Club, The Stronach Group, The New York Racing Association, The Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland, and countless trainers, owners, and breeders invested in American horseracing.

Horseracing operates under an outdated, state-based, balkanized patchwork of medication rules that creates confusion and risk for owners and trainers and contains gaps in rules and enforcement. The Horseracing Integrity Act would greatly improve regulatory standards, ban the use of all medications on race day, and level the playing field for everyone invested in horse racing.

It would designate the U.S. Anti- Doping Agency (USADA), a private non-governmental agency, as the independent organization that would oversee and administer all drug testing in U.S. horseracing.

A few U.S. Representatives from Arkansas have been open to discussing the bill, but not one single member of the state’s congressional delegation supports it, and it’s become a stumbling block for the bill. Oaklawn’s lack of support for the Horseracing Integrity Act is not only giving the track a black eye, but it’s elevating awareness about Spirogyra’s death in Arkansas to the national stage.

If horseracing is to survive in the state, and not go the way of greyhound racing that Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis announced last year would end in 2022, then the Oaklawn Jockey Club and the members of Congress that represent the Razorback State should get on board with the Horseracing Integrity Act, help save lives, and bring integrity back to the sport.

Marty Irby is a former eight-time world champion equestrian rider and the executive director at Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C.

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