x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

States split over new legislation

Horses in the US are weak and often given steroids and there are divisions over how to clean up the sport, writes Erica Lee Nelson.

Big Brown, with jockey Kent J Desormeaux in the irons, races in the 140th running of the Belmont Stakes.
Big Brown, with jockey Kent J Desormeaux in the irons, races in the 140th running of the Belmont Stakes.

Horses in the US are weak and often given steroids, writes Erica Lee Nelson, and there are divisions over how to clean up the sport Thoroughbred racing in the United States faces some awkward questions. The Kentucky Derby is supposed to be one of the highlights of the season, but May's race was tainted for followers of the sport. First came Eight Belles, who had to be put down on the track after breaking two ankles during the race. Then came the admission that Big Brown, who won the race, had been injected with steroids.

Lawmakers quickly vowed to draft legislation giving Congress new authorities as fear spread that horses are too medicated and genetically fragile - due to inbreeding - to stand up to the rigours of the sport. The trainer of Big Brown admitted to giving monthly treatments of steroids to the horse in May, just before his loss in the Belmont Stakes - the final race of the Triple Crown. The States has no common standard for horse health and safety. Each of the 38 states in which races take place has its own regulations governing everything from paperwork to which drugs are allowed on the track.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), the largest industry organisation in the United States, has protested against federal interference. Alex Waldrop, president of the NTRA, sarcastically implied that Congress might set up a "department of horseland security", in reference to the Government's department of homeland security. In contrast, some owners such as Arthur Hancock, whose Stone Farm stables has produced three Kentucky Derby winners, are begging for it.

"We are a rudderless ship, and the way we are going, we will all end up on the rocks," he said. "Only a federal racing commission or commissioner can save us from ourselves." This is all worrying news for Godolphin, the stable owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai. Godolphin is increasingly looking towards the States, and owns a 4,000 acre breeding farm, Darley USA, in Kentucky.

Godolphin USA enjoyed 123 first-place wins between 1994 and this year. Last year they bought the breeding rights of Street Sense, which won the Kentucky Derby in 2007, to add to the rights to the stallion's father, Street Cry. According to Daniel Metzger, president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, Darley has started keeping its purchases in the States rather than buying past champions to stand at its foreign operations.

"They have become significant players," he said. Besides the horses kept in the States, horses worth nearly $22 million (Dh81m) were exported to the UAE in 2007 and more than $86 million in 2004, according to department of commerce trade statistics. With significant interest from Saudi Arabia, the region has become a large factor in US racing. Atax break for owners, which passed as part of the farm bill this year, was criticised by some in Congress for being a boon to wealthy Middle Eastern buyers.

The break allows thoroughbred investments to depreciate quickly. It is estimated to cost the Government more than $10m a year in reduced revenue. But this is a rare case of the national government dictating the way the sport is run. Differences between the policies of individual States are often significant, with steroid use still unregulated in many parts of the country. Many powerful organisations have backed recommendations calling for a ban on anabolic steroids and "toe grabs" - a type of spike that increases traction but puts more stress on a horse's legs - and reforms in whips used by jockeys. The industry's attempts to self-regulate are working said Peggy Hendershot, vice president of legislative affairs at the NTRA.

She predicted that every state racing commission will adopt a ban on anabolic steroids by the end of the year, without any pushing from the national government. Efforts are ongoing to introduce a uniform racing licence, with the differing requirements are a source of frustration for people like Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds. West Point is a business where "partners" can invest in a particular horse, in exchange for a stake in that horse's future winnings.

Finley has more than 400 partners worldwide, including some from the Emirates. "The administrative burden is vast," he said. Paperwork can be a turn-off for potential owners, and having to submit different sets of fees and fingerprints for racing licences in each state can be overwhelming. Though he worries about the federal government meddling with racing regulation, he does not see another way to unite all the disparate US groups and states.

Ed Whitfield, a Republican who represents part of Kentucky in the house of representatives, has listened to complaints similar to Finley's, and has vowed to act. But with a short congressional calendar because of elections this year, there is little window for him to further his cause. Whitfield would to penalise states if they do not adopt basic medical safety rules. "We have the responsibility to set minimum standards to ensure the safety of those participants, to ensure the integrity of the breed and the sport," he said.