It was the "wow" moment of the hearing. • Nearly 60 percent of the athletes in the sport are on anabolic steroids, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., told a Congressional subcommittee late last month. And since the sport isn't policing itself, Whitfield said, maybe it's time the federal government stepped in and created national, standardized rules and penalties. • This wasn't about pro baseball, football or even cycling. • The subject was thoroughbred racing.
Regulators have been looking at steroid use in thoroughbreds for years, and some states, including New York, Pennsylvania and California, have adopted new rules and penalties. But at least 22 states have done little or nothing.
And that could be a problem.
In Florida, where the breeding, sale and racing of thoroughbreds is a $3-billion-a-year industry, the state is on the verge of tightening rules that mirror the proposed national guidelines and would ban steroid use in the month before a race to give horses time to get the drugs out of their system.
The state's primary thoroughbred auction company has banned steroids in the horses it sells.
But some in the industry worry that there is no guarantee other states will do the same, which could make Florida less attractive as a racing state. There is also concern that stricter steroid laws may do little to help a sport that is basically stagnant in Florida.
In fiscal year 2006-07, $155-million was wagered on live races at Florida's three thoroughbred and one harness track, according to figures from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations and its Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, the department that would write the new rules. But that was 3 percent less than the year before, and it meant revenue to the state also slipped by 3 percent.
Over the past decade, the amount of money wagered and the tax revenue collected by the state has remained flat.
A changing population, criticism from animal rights activists and competition from other gambling outlets have contributed to the decline, experts say. But even though Florida's drug tests are among the most comprehensive in the nation, skepticism about what the horses are on has played a role.
"It's no longer, 'My horse is better than yours,' Whitfield said. "It's, 'My vet is better than yours.' "
No national regulations exist against steroid use in the horse racing industry. In fact, four steroids — Winstrol, Equipoise, Nandrolone and testosterone — are permitted for use on horses by the Association of Racing Commissioners International.
Like many states, Florida tests for a wide variety of drugs. But not steroids.
That may change. The president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association said that by early 2009, he expects all major racing states to adopt a ban on the use of steroids for horses at least a month before they run.
Steroids can mask pain
Steroids are often used for medicinal purposes when a horse is sick, underweight or recovering from an injury.
But the drugs also make horses run faster and farther, and they can mask pain, so that a horse that would normally slow down or pull up if it feels injured will continue on. Sometimes, veterinarians say, that persistence could lead to catastrophic results.
Horses on steroids can be predisposed to injuries at the track, said veterinarian Michael A. Short, the equine programs manager for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "Fractures and breakdowns," Short said. "There's certainly some evidence of that.''
The drugs can cause a wide range of other problems, from liver ailments to infertility.
"Anabolic steroids are used in horses for the same reason as humans," Short said. "But they're supposed to be used for medical purposes, not to increase speed at the track. A certain contingent (of owners) will use them, and a certain won't.
"That's not a level playing field."
Richard Hancock, executive vice president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association, said that while the state needs to test for steroids, it can't act alone.
"If Florida has really stringent rules dealing with anabolic steroids,'' Hancock said, "if the next state doesn't have same requirements, they (owners and breeders) could go over there."
In December, Ocala Breeders' Sales, the state's largest thoroughbred auction company with more than $100-million in sales last year, decided not to wait. OBS bans steroid use in horses 45 days before a sale.
Track officials also see the need for testing, especially if it is uniform. Peter Berube, vice president and general manager of Tampa Bay Downs thoroughbred track in Oldsmar, is concerned that not all racing jurisdictions have the same rules. If Florida's rules are more strict than, say, those in Maryland, it could affect business.
"It could impact horses shipped here to Tampa, or Florida in general," Berube said. "But most states, including Florida, are moving forward with having rules in place by the first of the year.
"The integrity of the sport is paramount, and any time you can strengthen the rules, it's definitely a good thing."
Racing hits plateau
Considering the shrinking pool of money being wagered on races, and the decline in parimutuel revenues, positive changes can't happen too soon for the racing industry.
Horse racing in Florida has hit a plateau, said David Roberts, director of the state's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. "The (racing) industry is still trying to reinvent itself, still trying to find a way to market themselves and grow a fan base.
"There is the perception that some horses are running on more (steroids) than others, and we want to give the betting public confidence that the races are fair."
Roberts said he hopes to begin writing rules in July to address steroids. But first, the state needs to know what levels to look for.
The University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine is studying just that. Its goal is to identify how long it takes drugs to be eliminated from horses and learn more about how certain drugs influence performance.
Steroid use is more of a practical matter to Dr. Paul Mallonee, an equine veterinarian in Factoryville, Pa. He argues that while steroids should be controlled, there has been an overreaction because of baseball's scandal.
"In Major League Baseball,
80 percent of the athletes are not surgically neutered," Mallonee said. "In my world, they are. In an intact male, his body provides testosterone. So a gelding (a castrated male horse) is not going to be on the same physical level as the intact male. But geldings are easier to handle. Colts can be dangerous."
Steroids may be controversial, he said, but "those of us who are clinical practitioners understand the need for it."
Tom Zucco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8247.
Florida ponders steroids as it faces horse racing's future
The amount generated by the Florida horse industry in goods and services.
The effect the national industry has on the Florida economy.
The number of Floridians involved in the industry as horse owners, service providers, employees and volunteers.
Number of full-time jobs directly created by the Florida horse industry.
Number of horses registered in Florida, more than 60 percent of which are involved in showing and recreation.
Source: American Horse Council
Dropoff in races
The number of horse races run in the United States declined from 71,014 in 1988 to 34,350 in 2007, according to Jockey Club reports.