Millions of fans will watch American Pharoah attempt to become horse racing's 12th Triple Crown winner at next weekend's Belmont Stakes, but the sport is not without its critics. As Matt Hunter reports, a congressman is spearheading an effort he believes could help restore the public trust.
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Along with his wife, Marylou Whitney, John Hendrickson has raced thoroughbreds at Saratoga Race Course and across the country for years. He's one of a growing group of owners who believe the sport is at a crossroads.
"We risk losing fans,” Hendrickson said. “A lot of people are turned off from our sport because they don't think we are clean. We need to show that we are clean, transparent and we do crack down on the people that abuse the system."
A key reason behind that failing trust, says Hendrickson, is a lack of uniform rules state-to-state when it comes to the medicating of horses; virtually all of which race on some form of drug.
"Right now your horse can race in New York on a certain type of medications and there are separate rules in Baltimore, separate rules at Churchill Downs, separate rules in every state," Hendrickson said.
"That patchwork and voluntary nature of those requirements has caused a series of very different outcomes," said 20th District Congressman Paul Tonko.
Recently emerging as a leading voice in the effort to rid the sport of doping is Tonko.
As the Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Horse Caucus, he plans to introduce new legislation after next week's Belmont Stakes that would form an 11-member panel to draft uniform medication rules across the country.
"It's important, I believe, to make certain that we address the athlete, in this case the horse, from the perspective of what is humane and what is fair," Tonko said Friday.
Past efforts to create uniform rules have fallen flat, but Tonko's legislation has the backing of the Jockey Club, Breeders Cup and Water, Hay, Oats Alliance (WHOA).
"If there are going to be counter-forces, we want to hear what the concern is, but on certain elements I do not think we should compromise our principles," Tonko said.
Aiming to rid racing of what Tonko calls the "win at all cost" mentality, he and Hendrickson believe clearly defined rules are best for both the safety of the horses and integrity of the sport.
"We have had on average 24 deaths of horses weekly,” Tonko said. “There are better ways, better outcomes."
"It is too important, the sport is going to fail if we don't do something," Hendrickson said.