Marty Irby leaves Animal Wellness Action on a high note, but horses are not drugged just to get them high
WASHINGTON D.C.––Former Animal Wellness Action executive director Marty Irby on March 23, 2023 spoke in Oxford, Mississippi at the “Celebration of Life” for his friend and ally Clant Seay, founder of the Citizens Committee Against Big Lick Animal Cruelty.
(See “Greatest anti-soring advocate of all time” Clant Seay dies at 76.)
On March 24, 2023, Irby celebrated his last day at Animal Wellness Action before taking a position as chief operating officer for the conservative libertarian advocacy organization FreedomWorks.
Then, after the last weekend in March, Irby celebrated the “Implementation of New National Horse Racing Anti-Doping Rules that Take Effect Monday 3/27,” as he headlined a media release about it.
“I am more proud of that law than anything else”
“I’ll still be living on Capitol Hill, visiting Congressional offices, and attending political events,” Irby said in a separate statement about his departure from Animal Wellness Action.
“I do hope we will one day see the end of soring Tennessee walking horses, doping American racehorses, and the slaughter of our iconic American equines,” Irby continued, “and feel confident that the successful implementation of the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Act is well under way.
“I am more proud of that law than anything else I’ve ever been a part of to date,” Irby said, speaking as an eight-time world champion in Tennessee walking horse equestrian events, “as it was the first federal horse protection law enacted in half-a-century.”
Law created Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority
The Horseracing Integrity & Safety Act, signed into law in 2020, created a federal government agency called the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority, with a mandate to regulate drug use and racing conditions at horse tracks.
(See Trump signs anti-race horse doping bill & $60 million gift to horse industry.)
Implementing the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Act has been delayed by ongoing horse industry opposition to the existence and regulatory scope of the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority.
(See Court returns Horseracing Integrity & Safety Act to the starting gate.)
“Standardizes medication & safety protocols”
In concept, explained Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block and Sara Amundson, president of the subsidiary Humane Society Legislative Fund, in a jointly written blog post on March 27, 2023, “The Horseracing Integrity & Safety Act is a federal law that, for the first time, standardizes medication and safety protocols in horse racing across the country.
“The launch of the Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program,” brought into effect on March 27, 2023, “is administered by a new independent enforcement agency, the Horseracing Integrity & Welfare Unit,” Block and Amundson said.
“It establishes a national, uniform system for drug testing and enforcement that includes centralized testing and laboratory accreditation with uniform penalties for violations.
“Horses can be tested for drugs at any time”
“One significant change in the new rules,” Block and Amundson emphasized, “is the substantial increase in out-of-competition testing. This means that horses can be tested for drugs at any time, not just on race day.
“This measure is critical because some drugs can stay in a horse’s system for days or even weeks, making it possible for trainers to administer them outside of race day.
“The program also includes harsher penalties for banned substances,” Block and Amundson summarized, “an investigations unit to focus on cheaters, and an anonymous whistleblower platform. Plus, pre-race veterinary exams are now mandatory and include greater oversight.
Resistance from the dopers
“Unfortunately,” Block and Amundson acknowledged, “the Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program Program is facing resistance from those in the industry who wish to continue doping horses. The Racetrack Safety Program, which has been in effect since last summer, has been more widely accepted.
“This program,” Block and Amundson said, “enhances horse and rider safety through operational safety rules, national racetrack accreditation standards, enhanced veterinary oversight, surface maintenance and testing requirements, and regulation of riding crop use, among other measures.”
Exulted Irby, “Our work to secure the enactment of the new law alongside groups like the Jockey Club, Water Hay Oats Alliance, New York Racing Association, The Breeders’ Cup, and Churchill Downs [host of the annual Kentucky Derby] has set American horse racing on the right track.”
Stripped of the roses
Federal scrutiny, at least superficially, seems to have cleaned up horse racing somewhat.
In February 2022, for instance, 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit was symbolically stripped of the winner’s rose garland and trainer Bob Baffert was barred from competing at Churchill Downs for 90 days. Baffert was also fined $7,500 and forfeited the prize money won by Medina Spirit.
Medina Spirit had tested positive for betamethasone, a banned substance if used on race day, shortly after the Kentucky Derby.
The Maryland and New York Racing Commissions had then excluded Baffert from training any horse entered in either the 2021 Preakness Stakes or the 2021 Belmont Stakes.
Fewer breakdowns––& fewer wildfires
Track safety seems to have improved as well.
The Santa Anita track in California, where at least 35 horses suffered fatal breakdowns in 2019, had only four fatalities in 2022, the lowest number of fatal breakdowns since 2009.
The Keeneland track in Kentucky saw fatal breakdowns fall from nine in 2019 to just one in 2022.
But the apparent improvement at both tracks may simply reflect that there were no major wildfires near either track in late 2021 or in 2022.
Wood ash hardens clay surfaces, a fact known to potters for 3,500 years, though ignored by the horse racing industry. The Santa Anita track was blanketed with wood ash from the 96,949-acre Woolsey Fire in late 2018, and Keeneland was in proximity to several smaller fires.
(See Will Santa Anita figure out what’s killing race horses? Don’t bet on it!)
“I think horse racing really has a bright future,” says Irby
“We’re very, very encouraged,” Irby repeated to Kelsey Souto of WKYT in Lexington, Kentucky, home of the Keeneland raceway.
“I think horse racing really has a bright future ahead of it if they maintain the course,” Irby said, “if they stay on the right track, and if they continue to put the welfare and health of the horse first.”
But in view of the history of horse racing, Irby may have been excessively optimistic.
Consider the opening lyrics of the horse racing song of oldest pedigree, 60 years older in origin than “Camptown Races,” by Stephen Foster:
“Old Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine.
He never drank water, he always drank wine.”
Why did old Stewball drink wine?
Because wine in the 18th century, when the song originated, was commonly believed to be a performance stimulant.
The full story of Stewball the racehorse, however, began with Cearbhall’s Fort, a now obscure landmark in both Irish and equine history.
This is where Cearbhall MacDúnlainge, Lord of Osraighe, built the fortified cavalry stable for which he became posthumously known––many centuries later––as “Cearbhall MacDunghill.”
Cearbhall was first recorded in history when he fought off an attack by Vikings who invaded overland from Dublin in 845.
Alternately a foe and an ally of the Vikings, thwarting frequent attacks by both sea and land, between raids on rival regional warlords, Cearbhall for the next 43 years proved exceptionally adept at survival, if never quite strong enough to convert victories into conquest.
Cearbhall came closest to defeat in 868. His longtime arch-foes from Leinster cornered him at Cearbhall’s Fort.
Charging up the steep hill hellbent on effecting his quick demise, they reached the summit winded. Cearbhall’s cavalry charge repelled and slaughtered them.
The Marvel horse
The name “Cearbhall” over time metamorphized into a description of his prized “skewbald” horses.
While the term evolved on into “piebald” during the 19th century, “skewbald” became “Stewball,” the name of a wine-drinking racehorse kept by Sir Arthur Marvel.
Stewball circa 1790 was entered into a match race in Kildare against Miss Portly, a gray mare of comparably dubious training kept by Sir Ralph Gore.
Miss Portly took an early lead but stumbled and fell, having possibly been given too much wine before the race.
Stewball, the winner, was remembered in a ballad first published in 1829, made famous in mid-20th century versions by The Weavers, Lonnie Donnegan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary.
Cearbhall’s Fort, meanwhile, is remembered at Knockardbane, the farm that became the visitor center at the Donkey Sanctuary of Ireland, founded in 1926, but in all likelihood the home of donkeys for almost as long as donkeys have been in Ireland.
At the highest point on Knockardbane, as far from the Donkey Sanctuary office as visitors can walk within the fenced trails, a circle of half-buried white-painted stones highlight the earthworks that are the remaining traces of Cearbhall’s Fort.
David Pauli says
Marty…. good luck on this next adventure. Your contributions to equine treatment have been consistent and substantial!
Jamaka Petzak says
Sharing with gratitude for your factual and compassionate reportage AND for the history lesson, which I always appreciate.