"We're looking for Arnold Schwarzenegger's upper body and then we go to Don Knotts' legs and knees," said Jess Jackson, owner of 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin. "We don't need all of the inbreeding we have. I go to Argentina to buy horses; I go to Germany to buy horses because they have stronger bones and better knees. We need a league and a commissioner. We need action, please. Congress, help."
Bloodlines, steroids, the lack of an authoritative governing body, alarming figures on horse deaths and a breech of protocol by Big Brown's trainer were all topics of discussion Thursday before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection. The hearing was called after Eight Belles broke down at the Kentucky Derby last month and was euthanized on the track.
There was widespread agreement among the witnesses regarding many of the industry's ills: steroids, breakdowns on the track and weaker bloodlines that produce horses that can race far fewer times than their counterparts decades ago.
Consensus on addressing these problems was another matter. That was hardly surprising considering the sport essentially is run by 38 sets of rules - one for each state in which racing takes place.
"We are a rudderless ship," longtime breeder Arthur Hancock said. "And the way we're going, we will all end up on the rocks."
Added ESPN analyst Randy Moss: "Imagine if the NFL were set up to permit each state to field as many pro teams as it wanted, play as many games as it wanted all year long, and set its own individual football rules ... Horse racing has been set up in this fashion."
Jackson blames racing's ills on greedy owners, reports CBS News correspondent Debbye Turner. In the days of Seabiscuit and Citation, thoroughbred owners made money winning races, on the track. But by the 1980's, auction prices for young horses skyrocketed. Now the big money is made in the breeding shed.
"We are more interested as an industry in the economic revenue than we are about the welfare of the horse, and this is about the horse," said Jackson, who still races Curlin at a time when most 4-year-olds are sold as breeding stallions, reports Turner.
"We should have more patience," said Jackson. "We should wait until the horses have proven their durability and stamina before they're retired … so we won't inbreed the imperfections to the leg and to the rest of the horse."
Some asked Congress to intervene. Some, including Jockey Club president Alan Marzelli, favored the establishment of a national governing body, but one led by the industry and not by the government. Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, advocated the status quo because of what he called "great strides" made recently.
"The last thing this industry needs is another layer of bureaucracy," Waldrop said. "A 'Department of Horse-land Security' funded by yet another tax on our long-suffering customers is not what we need."
Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky noted that Congress has leverage to influence the sport because of the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978, which grants simulcasting rights that now account for much of the industry's profits. A law could be passed, for example, that withholds simulcast money from states that don't adhere to federally mandated guidelines.
"Mr. Waldrop has the very best intentions, but he does not have the authority to do anything," Whitfield said. "I think that we are going to be looking at some legislation to deal with this."
New surveys, including one by The Associated Press, found thousands of racing-related horse deaths in recent years. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois said Eight Belles was a "genetic disaster waiting to happen," a point she made by displaying a chart of what she called the horse's "fragile bloodline."
Many witnesses offered scathing opinions on the proliferation of medications given to horses. California Horse Racing Board chairman Richard Shapiro said the sport now has "twice the vets and half the horses."
"Over the last 40 years we have traded the time-tested regimen of hay, oats and water for a virtual pharmacopoeia," Shapiro said.
Marzelli offered hope by pointing out that its safety panel two days ago called for a sweeping ban on anabolic steroids. He expects all horse racing states to adopt the ban.
"We are confident that 2008 will be the last year in which anabolic steroids will be permitted in our sport during training and racing," Marzelli said.
That would clearly influence the methods used by the trainer of Big Brown, the Triple Crown favorite who finished a stunning last place in the Belmont Stakes on June 7.
Rick Dutrow Jr., who gave a legal steroid to Big Brown through April, was expected tell Congress his side of the story in person, but he was a no-show. Dutrow on Wednesday told the AP he was too ill to attend, but he remained on the witness list - there was even a symbolic name card for him at the table - because he apparently failed to tell those in charge.
Dutrow did provide a statement in which he discussed his checkered record, including his use of anabolic steroids on horses.
"My observation is that it helps the horses eat better," the statement said. "Their coats brighten. They're more alert. It helps them train."
Dutrow added that "if steroids are banned in the United States, we'll stop using them."
Whether that - and other reforms - can happen without Congress' intervention remained an open question.
"We always say we can do it ourselves," Jackson said. "But we are experts at delay. We never get it done."