Legislative Landscape

Lobbyists in nation’s capital help USTA make sure there is representation for Standardbreds, and harness racing

story by Kathy Parker

More than 50 years ago, a group of Kentucky horse racing leaders decided they needed to have representation when Congress was considering legislation that could impact their business. The group, which included Castleton Farm/Red Mile owner Frederick Van Lennep and several of his Thoroughbred brethren in Kentucky horse country, founded the American Horse Council.

Over the years there were many reasons that affirmed the belief of the Kentucky horse racing powerbrokers that they needed representation in Washington. There were taxation issues which affected the horse business—routine items such as taxation and depreciation. In 1978, the Interstate Horse Racing Act was passed. It authorized wagering on horse racing across state lines, bringing changes which totally upended the business model of racetracks, where profits came mostly from wagers placed at the track where the race and bet took place.

The American Horse Council has maintained a presence in Washington, and Congress, serving as a voice for the horse industry to the public and to government authorities. It has been involved in virtually all federal law and regulation created that affects the horse racing industry.

But just a few years ago, when the idea for federal regulation of horse racing was presented in the form of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA), it quickly became apparent that each type of horse racing had some unique issues, even if there was also common ground. The AHC represents members with different perspectives and rarely lobbies on behalf of individual horse interests on Capitol Hill. Therefore, leadership of the USTA decided the organization needed its own lobbyist to represent harness racing, and the Standardbred horse, in meetings being held to determine the details of federal regulation of horse racing.

HISA became law when it was passed along with omnibus legislation in December 2020, but Standardbreds/harness racing were excluded.

Because HISA has been promoted as an agency to rid horse racing of bad actors, especially those who use performance-enhancing drugs on horses to win races, the USTA was criticized for what many called “not being at the table” so Standardbreds could be included in the HISA structure. But the USTA was at the table. As discussions took place prior to HISA’s passage, the USTA had a lobbyist at the table: The Ingram Group, whose client list also includes AT&T, Philip Morris International, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee.

Some might ask why the USTA enlisted a lobbyist in Washington. USTA CEO Mike Tanner also notes that the organization supports lobbying activities in states as well, which has pushed the USTA’s budget for such work to close to $100,000 annually.

“Lobbyists do what a small organization like the USTA cannot—specifically, leverage relationships with legislators and their staffs to provide access that the USTA couldn’t achieve on its own,” said Tanner. “Beyond that, they have in-depth knowledge as to how the process works.

“The USTA was founded in 1939, and until 2018, I don’t think the association had ever gone to Capitol Hill on a consistent basis to advocate for or against anything. Times have changed.”

Amanda Bunning Kelsey is the USTA’s point person with the Ingram Group, which describes itself as an “advocacy business.” Her knowledge of the legislative landscape put the USTA in discussions about HISA.

“The USTA conducted over 350 meetings regarding HISA on Capitol Hill, meeting directly with bill sponsors, other legislators, and Congressional staff,” said Kelsey. “We offered several solutions to improve the legislation, but our ultimate ask was to be excluded from the law, and we were successful in that effort. The door was left open to include Standardbreds in the law at a later date, so we are still hard at work meeting with key lawmakers on the future of HISA.”

Kelsey, the granddaughter of former U.S. Senator and Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Bunning (R-KY), became interested in politics and campaigns at a very young age. She joined the Ingram Group after extensive public and private sector work, which included time spent in the office of Kentucky’s United States Senator Mitch McConnell, who has held the post of Majority Leader when the Republicans have had control of the Senate, which included the time when HISA was passed.

“In Washington, it is crucial to be known as a respected thought leader, and that’s what the USTA has become,” said Kelsey of the Ingram Group’s work. “Our team impacts policy by ensuring that USTA views are before Congress at the right times, so that when lawmakers are considering policies that impact the Standardbred industry, the USTA is there to weigh in.”

Some believe harness racing/Standardbreds will still be swept into HISA because of the need for revenues to fund the new agency. In addition, in late December HISA appeared to be dealt a setback when its negotiations with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) were suspended. USADA
had been touted as an independent enforcement agency for HISA’s Anti-Doping and Medication Control program, which many hope will rid horse racing of doping.

Since HISA has not come to terms with USADA, Kelsey said it is possible there might be changes to HISA.

“After a bill passes, our work is not over and done,” she said. “We worked with USTA leadership to file a public comment on proposed rules to ensure our voice was heard at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Also, Capitol Hill staffs move on to other legislative priorities, so it is our job to keep them informed of implementation. The USADA fallout with the HISA Authority is just one example of an important update that we informed Congressional staff about. If that is not resolved soon, Congress may be forced to amend HISA.”

In addition to HISA, the Ingram Group has also been working with the USTA to advance passage of the Save America’s Forgotten Equines (SAFE) Act.

“For the SAFE Act, on a daily basis we work to move the legislation toward passage in the House and Senate by clearly articulating the USTA perspective with key offices,” said Kelsey via a written statement. “Recently, the USTA successfully secured new bipartisan co-sponsors for the bill.”

Kelsey said there has been reluctance on the part of some lawmakers to support the SAFE Act, which would permanently ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption in the United States, as well as prohibit the export of live horses to Mexican and Canadian slaughterhouses to be sold overseas. According to estimates, approximately 37,000 horses were exported for slaughter in 2020.

“As with HISA, passing a bill like the SAFE Act can take years,” said Kelsey. “Advocacy takes a lot of time and nurturing. Currently, we are trying to re-ignite momentum on the House side, specifically by asking the Energy and Commerce Committee to hold a hearing on the bill. The Senate bill was introduced more recently, so there, we’re doing a lot of education and looking for co-sponsors.

“We are having success with many Democrats, but support for the bill by animal rights groups has caused some Republicans to shy away,” Kelsey added, noting that some animal rights groups have been regarded as extremists. “At this time, Senator McConnell is neutral on the bill because he prefers to see horsemen work things out themselves before he steps in.”

The SAFE Act is co-sponsored by U.S. House of Representative members Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) and Vern Buchanan (R-Florida).

Other legislators from states with significant Standardbred breeding and racing industries have not expressed support for the SAFE Act. That includes Sen. Rob Portman from Ohio, a well-respected leader in Washington who has announced he will not run for re-election, as well as legislators from Pennsylvania and Indiana.

“The SAFE Act is very important legislation for the USTA to support,” said Tanner. “We’re as committed to this as we are to making sure our voice is heard regarding HISA.”

For those who wonder if the USTA’s need for a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., will end with HISA or the SAFE Act, Kelsey makes the following points.

“Having good representation in Washington is extremely important for any business or association seeking to ensure that their voice is heard,” she said. “Whether it be trillion-dollar COVID-19 relief packages or new federal mandates on your industry, if you’re not well represented on Capitol Hill, you could well be left out of the discussion.

“At the heart of our activities is communicating with members of Congress and their staffs about exactly how proposed legislation affects the USTA. When appropriate, we also offer ideas for amendments that might resolve USTA’s concerns. These steps are crucial, because congressional staffs are not necessarily experts as to the impacts that proposed legislation will have on an industry or interest. Thus, it is crucial that they hear directly from affected stakeholders.”

Tanner said he has concluded that the USTA must always allocate funds in its annual budget to have a voice in Washington.

“Amanda and the Ingram Group have been essential in helping us deliver our message,” he said. “The National Thoroughbred Racing Association just hired a new president, Tom Rooney. He’s a former congressman from Florida, and his first move was to open an office on Capitol Hill. I think that’s very telling.” HB

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