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Congress Looks to Take the Reins on Horse Racing Regulations

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With the start of the new horse racing season at Del Mar today, there are questions about national regulation of thoroughbred racing. Congress is looking to take the reins on safety issues and the us

Congress Looks to Take the Reins on Horse Racing Regulations

(Photo: A general view of the horses racing into the final turn at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. Donald Miralle/Getty Images )
With the start of the new horse racing season at Del Mar today, there are questions about national regulation of thoroughbred racing.  Congress is looking to take the reins on safety issues and the use of performance-enhancing drugs in horses.  In California, the racing industry is already making changes.  Elizabeth Wynne Johnson reports from Capitol Hill.

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From gambling revenues to television simulcasting rights, horseracing has a major economic hoof print. And it pays to be a winner. San Diego Congressman Darrell Issa sees a growing concern right in his home district.

<b> Issa: </b> Obviously Del Mar is a major part of what brings people to San Diego and has been ever since Bing Crosby. But when it comes to horse racing, unlike human beings, the use of steroids… has to be viewed in the sense of transparency and fairness. <br>

At the Belmont Stakes this year, all eyes were on Big Brown. Whose strength and speed routinely got a boost from injections of a steroid called Winstrol. Which has been well within the rules of horse racing in 28 states. But in the weeks leading up to the third and final leg of horse racing's highest honor, Big Brown's trainers pledged the horse would not receive his monthly dose. California Horseracing Board chairman Richard Shapiro was in New York to see the race.

<b> Shapiro: </b> I went there expecting to see the next Triple Crown winner… I said, I'm going to witness this, it'll be the first time in 30 years. …no way this horse can lose. <br>

Big Brown stunned the world… by finishing dead last. It didn't take long for some observers to raise questions about Big Brown's steroid status.

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<b> Whitfield: </b> There are a lot of concerns about the horse racing industry as it exists today. Number one, there's not any governing body that has jurisdiction around the country with enforcement mechanisms. <br>

Kentucky Republican Ed Whitfield was among the first in Congress to raise questions about governance of the high-stakes sport. Especially when it comes to doping. For example, each leg of the Triple Crown is run under a different set of rules for steroids in horses.

<b> Whitfield: </b> Frankly these drugs can be viewed as performance-enhancers. There's no place for them. <br>

Richard Shapiro says the existing patchwork of state-by-state regulation is the biggest problem facing thoroughbred racing right now. The California Board recently adopted new rules that will eliminate use of anabolic steroids. They'll be in effect in time for the opening of Del Mar. And the Breeders Cup, which is at Santa Anita this year.

<b> Shapiro:&nbsp; </b> Unfortunately , there's nothing that requires states to adopt these model rules… It is only a suggestion to the states and their lawmakers need to do it. <br>

Congressman Whitfield wants to take steps toward federal oversight of the sport. But with efforts like the one in his home state already underway, Issa hopes his fellow lawmakers won't be too quick out of the gates. He sees a role for Congress in ensuring transparency, but he's wary of over-regulation.

<b> Issa: </b> The last thing we need is another federal agency mucking around in the stalls of horses. <br>

From Capitol News Connection in Washington, I'm Elizabeth Wynne Johnson for KPBS News.