The crowd at Churchill Downs was limited largely to connections of horses racing. (Photo: Jamie Squire, Getty Images) 

OPINION by Marty Irby

Today marks quite a historical day in the world of equine competitions. For the first time, the Kentucky Derby and the Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Championship will be held on the same evening – two well-known events, notorious for abuse. It struck me as a unique opportunity to discuss the issue of doping American racehorses in parallel to soring gaited horses, two of the equine world’s most terrible practices, and the two issues I’ve spent the majority of the past seven years working to end.

Since 1875 The Kentucky Derby has remained the first leg of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred horse racing until this year due to covid-19. Normally held in May, this ‘Run for the Roses’ where fancy hats and mint juleps typically adorn the grounds of Churchill Downs in Louisville, the event this year follows the Belmont Stakes amidst the controversy of rampant doping that has plagued the sport for decades. In January I

testified before the Congress

about the rampant doping in the sport, and in March, the U.S. Department of Justice

handed down 27 federal indictments

of trainers, veterinarians, and others involved in a massive, illegal drug ring pumping racehorses full of cocktails to cash in on millions of dollars and defraud the betting public. The rampant doping has not only defrauded the public, but it has led to the death of hundreds of race horses at U.S. tracks each year and the import of illegal drugs from China and Korea.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced a compromise regulation bill
Monday at the Keeneland sales pavilion. (Silas Walker, Lexington Herald-Leader)

The Jockey Club, the Thoroughbred breed registry founded in 1894 with a mission ‘dedicated to the improvement of Thoroughbred breeding and racing,’ has been the industry’s leader in working to eliminate doping and other abuses in the sport. They’ve taken a hard stance against the slaughter of Thoroughbred racehorses and in 2019 announced their position to curb whipping in America. Animal Wellness Action has joined them, The Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland, the Water Hay Oats Alliance, The Stronach Group, the Thoroughbred Owners’ & Breeders’ Association and the New York Racing Association in the Coalition for Horseracing Integrity that’s pushing for passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act, H.R. 1754/S. 1820 led by Reps. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., and Andy Barr, R-Ky. and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz. The measure would ban the use of race day drugs, create a uniform national standard for testing and national rules, and put the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in charge of enforcement and regulation that’s currently overseen by a patchwork of state regulatory bodies with inconsistent rules and penalties.

While the HIA has met detractors over the past few years, we’re now on a solid path to moving legislation that would end doping with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s announcement this week that he’ll be soon introducing a compromise, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act that would also accomplish the ban on race-day medication still with USADA in charge, but also with a more definitive set of standards and regulations that mirror the current international guidelines, and a provision requiring U.S. tracks to report data on injuries and deaths to the Federal Trade Commission. And McConnell’s legislation brings the support of The Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs, who had previously opposed our efforts. The Senate majority leader clearly stated in a press conference Monday at Keeneland that The Washington Post’s March editorial, "Horse racing has outlived its time", which called for the end of horse racing in the U.S., raised his eyebrows and spurred him to action. Working with The Jockey Club and the Thoroughbred industry to create reform hasn’t always been easy for us, but our coalition partners have always been gracious and have established credibility with every major animal protection group in the country. Leaders in the industry recognize that the welfare of the horses should be at the center of their enterprise.

Rodney Dick rode I'm Mayhem to last year's
championship, then began a suspension for
violating the Horse Protection Act. (Shelbyville
 Times-Gazette photo by Gary Johnson)
In contrast, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, the breed’s world-championship show established in 1939 in Shelbyville, and the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association, the breed registry established in 1935 with a mission to "protect and promote the welfare of the Tennessee Walking Horse," have dealt with their issues of abuse quite differently, and have fought against change at nearly every turn. It’s been no surprise that on numerous occasions the Celebration’s trash cans have been lined with derogatory flyers and photos of animal advocates who’ve been pushing to end the painful practice of soring – the intentional infliction of pain to horses’ legs and feet by applying caustic chemicals such as croton oil, mustard oil, and diesel fuel to the skin and inserting sharp objects into the hooves to produce and artificial high-step known as the “Big Lick” that has plagued the Tennessee Walking Horse breed and marred the Volunteer State for six decades.

Since 2013, when several of us spoke out in support of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 693/S. 1007, and later testified in support of the measure before the Congress, we’ve been viciously attacked – and have even received death threats from horse abusers in the “Big Lick” segment of the breed. The PAST Act, now renamed in honor of Sen. Joe Tydings who authored the Horse Protection Act of 1970 designed to stamp out soring – would amend the HPA to close loopholes that have allowed soring to persist by banning the use of large stacked shoes and ankle chains on the horses’ feet; eliminating the industry’s corrupt self-policing scheme with inconsistent rules and regulations similar to that of horseracing and replacing the system with licensed inspectors – independent contractors of the U.S. Department of Agriculture trained in a uniform manner; and increase penalties for violators caught soring.

PAST, led by veterinarian U.S. Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, and Ted Yoho, R-Fla., along with Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Memphis, passed the House last July with 333 votes in support of the bill including every single Democrat and the majority of Republicans. America’s verdict from the people’s House was delivered, and the “Big Lick” pain-based high-stepping gait the breed has long desired and rewarded felt a crushing blow. But PAST has lost steam in the Senate, and despite the great work of sponsors Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Mark Warner, D-Va., garnering 51 cosponsors, the measure is stuck in Committee.

Despite the PAST Act’s support in Congress, and the support of the American Horse Council, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the United States Equestrian Federation, not one single group from within the breed has endorsed the bill, and they’ve funneled piles of cash to the campaign coffers of obstructionists like Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., to block the bill. Their ability to stymie reform is a political-science lesson in the way special interests are able to leverage their influence to delay broadly supported reforms. And unlike their counterparts in horse racing, the trainers, owners, breeders, and major entities in the walking horse breed don’t seem to care that horse registrations, memberships, sales, and stallion service fees continue to decline. From my own personal experience in the walking horse industry, I’ve sadly seen the welfare of the horse has long been the least important point of consideration to most “Big Lick” enthusiasts and the status quo remains.

Just this week, many have witnessed horses at the Celebration that one industry insider told me appeared to be ‘penitentiary walking’ – a term “Big Lick” enthusiasts jokingly use to describe a horse that appears to be so sore the trainer would likely be put in the penitentiary if the inspection and justice system governing the breed actually worked.

So, this evening, while the running of the 146th Kentucky Derby takes place, please know it could very well be the last one we see run with horses on drugs, and we remain hopeful that the rampant doping and deaths will soon end. But the “Big Lick” Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Championship – well, it remains in a downward spiral with no end in sight, and the breed itself remains the ‘pariah of the equine world,’ that most mainstream equine leaders would be perfectly content to see disappear and stop attracting so much negative publicity for the horse industry.

Marty Irby is the executive director of Animal Wellness Action and a past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association.