Ed Whitfield, Equestrian Hero

Congress should create a body to govern thoroughbred racing.

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There are few if any admirable political figures in Washington, D.C., these days. But one whose under-the-radar work calls for high praise is Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican. Whitfield's stalwart concern for horses is nothing short of spectacular, particularly given the fact he hails from the Bluegrass State. In Kentucky, the political muscle of horse breeders and trainers (many of whom oppose animal welfare laws because they interfere with profits) reigns, or should I say, reigns supreme. I have written about Whitfield in the past, but his nonstop push to protect horses from neglect, slaughter, and abuse deserves revisiting.

Whitfield most recently worked with a small group of members of Congress to hold last week's subcommittee hearing on thoroughbred racing. At that hearing, members of Congress publicly "scolded the horse racing industry for endangering thoroughbreds with lax drug policies and faulty breeding, and said the sport emphasized greed over transparency," according to the Associated Press.

Such "scolding" was long overdue. The subcommittee's investigation revealed just the first of many layers of cruelty to which the proud thoroughbred is sadly subjected. But the hearing was a start, and a good one.

Thoroughbred racing and other equine sports have produced a number of well-publicized recent tragedies, which is why Congress is finally starting to take reform seriously. The list began with Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro being "euthanized" after shattering his leg at the 2006 Preakness, the second event in racing's Triple Crown. I put "euthanized" in quotes because "slaughter" is more apropos. Then this year's Derby second-finisher, Eight Belles, shattered her leg and was destroyed while a horrified live TV audience looked on.

Most recently, the trainer of Big Brown (who won the first two races of this year's Triple Crown) very publicly stopped doping the horse and Big Brown fizzled at his next race, the Belmont. Message to the American public: Most horses must be loaded up with harmful, performance-enhancing drugs to win.

Last week's subcommittee hearing was a prelude to Congress considering the creation of a federal governing body for thoroughbred racing. The industry has sworn to reform itself in the past and has failed miserably. It is currently governed by a patchwork of mainly lax state laws. At last week's hearing, Stone Farm's Arthur Hancock testified that the industry was "too fractured and perhaps too dysfunctional to organize itself and needed federal oversight to rid the sport of drugs and stop fatalities." Stone Farm has bred three Kentucky Derby winners. Hancock, like Representative Whitfield, deserves some kind of medal for "outing" his own industry like that.

Few industry representatives are that honest. More typical is this doozy from Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which Waldrop posted on the group's website after he, too, testified at the hearing: "The hearing is yet the latest example that our industry needs to act responsibly, collectively and expediently on a range of equine health and safety initiatives. Otherwise we can expect Congress and others to push forward with an agenda to act on our behalf."

Read that as code for, "If we don't start cleaning up our own very dirty act, we will have it cleaned up for us by federal authorities. Luckily for the horses and unluckily for the profit-motivated humans, it's probably too late for self-governance."

Whitfield deserves extra credit, but he is no longer the only member of Congress active in this cause. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat and self-described lifelong equestrian, is now a major supporter of legislation to protect horses. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who chaired last week's hearing, is now also on board. There are probably others who also deserve credit.

But Whitfield has toiled for years to prompt Congress to become proactive on a variety of horse protection fronts. Before he took up the cause of thoroughbred racing reform, he led the so-far unsuccessful move to ban horse slaughter in the United States. (NOTE: State laws shut down the last three U.S. horse slaughter plants in Illinois and Texas. But on a national scale, horse slaughter is still legal in the United States because Congress has been unable to pass a federal slaughter ban.)

Whitfield's work and unnecessary track tragedies have accelerated the pace of reform to the point where it is probably now unstoppable. I wish the reformers Godspeed. Please join me.