EDITORIAL: Thoroughbred racing takes an ugly turn

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Jun. 4—Majestic animals. Raw power. Stunning speed. Amazing grace.

Thoroughbred racing is a beautiful, awe-inspiring sport.

Take it from anyone who has ever stood along the rail in the homestretch clutching a wager stub as a dozen 1,200-pound creatures thunder past in a symphony of hoof beats.

The sinewy perfection of each animal, accentuated by a rainbow of colorful jockey silks. The sweet smell of equine sweat. The roar of the crowd.

Yes, thoroughbred racing is a beautiful sport, a feast for the senses and the imagination.

But turn the sport over, and you'll recoil at its disease-ridden underbelly. It's so rancid, you'll have to pinch your nose.

Every track is susceptible to the disease. Even the granddaddy of all thoroughbred races, the Kentucky Derby, isn't immune.

The "winner" of the 2021 Kentucky Derby in May, Medina Spirit, is the latest victim of thoroughbred racing's disease. After the colt crossed the line first in the Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, two tests revealed he had been treated with a banned steroid.

While the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission investigates to determine whether Medina Spirit should be disqualified from the Derby, his trainer, Bob Baffert, has been suspended for two years from Churchill Downs, home of the Derby.

A pattern of cheating shows that Baffert is a primary purveyor of the disease afflicting thoroughbred racing.

Medina Spirit's positive test is the fifth medication violation found in a Baffert-trained horse in the past 13 months. Accordingly, the prominent trainer has been suspended by the New York Racing Association and will not be allowed to enter horses in this weekend's Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown.

Using banned substances to enhance performance can lead to fatal injuries for horses and jeopardizes the safety of jockeys, as well. In addition, like other forms of cheating, it undermines the integrity of the sport by giving horses illegal advantages and essentially bilking bettors.

In recent years, a spate of race horse deaths and the indictment of 27 people on horse doping charges in New York have brought into sharp focus the need for a national set of rules to govern thoroughbred racing. Instead, the industry is governed by a patchwork of more than 30 state regulatory bodies with varying standards, rules and penalties.

In 2020, Congress passed a law — the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act — that would place the authority to establish and oversee horse doping laws under the Federal Trade Commission.

In March 2021, however, a national horseman's association filed a suit claiming that the new law, set to take effect in the summer of 2022, is unconstitutional. Basically, the horse industry is fighting against federal government regulation. Horseman association affiliates in 11 states, including Indiana, have joined the lawsuit.

While the suit slowly winds its way through the judicial system, the beautiful sport of thoroughbred racing will continue to suffer the ugly disease inflicted by bad actors like Bob Baffert.

If the sport can't regulate itself for safety and integrity, the government will have to do it.