Deep Within Relief Bill, Horse Racing Gets New Tools to Clean Up


The indictments told of a drug culture that had taken a deep hold within the sport, with owners chasing big purses and a fear among trainers to hold crooked competitors accountable. One of the people indicted was the trainer Jason Servis, who trained a well-known winner in Maximum Security and was accused of covertly administering performance-enhancing drugs to horses under his care. Servis pleaded not guilty.

By November, Bob Baffert, the sport’s most decorated trainer and in many ways the face of horse racing, issued a public apology and promised to do better following drug tests failed by his horses. Baffert has had 29 tests failed by horses over the past four decades, including four in the past six months. Many of those cases were met with modest fines or short suspensions, as Baffert said he did nothing wrong and blamed the test results on environmental contamination or human error.


The new structure could change how similar cases are investigated and judged.


“This is a watershed moment for our sport,” said James L. Gagliano, chief operating officer of the Jockey Club, one of horse racing’s oldest and most influential organizations. “We have a chance to regulate our sports at high standards. If you don’t have safe and clean sport, you don’t have anything.”

Horse racing arrived at this moment because, in 2012, Hancock and his wife, Staci, founded the Water Hay Oats Alliance with the mission of getting drugs out of racing. They grew it to more than 1,800 industry members who shamed horsemen, veterinarians, politicians and regulators into treating thoroughbreds like athletes rather than commodities.

Among the most notable opponents to cleaning up racing were Churchill Downs Inc. — the host of the Kentucky Derby, America’s most famous race — and Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the Senate majority leader, who counts the company among his top patrons.

In 2016, Hancock said McConnell told him that he could not push an earlier version of the bill until Churchill Downs got on board.

“We don’t believe a federal bill is practical, reasonable, or imminent,” Bill Carstanjen, chief executive of Churchill Downs, told The New York Times in a statement in 2019.


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