WASHINGTON -- Big Brown's trainer appears to be a late scratch for Thursday's House hearing on the safety of thoroughbred racing, removing the most anticipated witness from Congress' latest look at sports and steroids.
Rick Dutrow said Wednesday he has had a virus for several days and did not feel well enough to travel.
"I would go in a minute, but I just don't feel well," Dutrow said in a telephone interview. "To go down there when I'm not on top of my game would not be right."
The Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection had been looking forward to hearing from the trainer known for his candor and for methods that were brought into question after his star horse's stunning last-place finish at this month's Belmont Stakes.
Dutrow said he used a legal steroid on Big Brown -- although the last dose was given in April -- and the horse also ran the race on a quarter crack in the left front hoof in a failed attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years.
"I'm sorry he's not here," said Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, the subcommittee's ranking Republican. "We had a lot of questions for him."
The hearing will go on, with much to discuss. An Associated Press survey last week found that thoroughbred racetracks reported more than three horse deaths a day in 2007 and 5,000 since 2003. The impetus for the hearing came when Eight Belles broke down at the Kentucky Derby last month and was euthanized on the track, well before the travails of Big Brown at the Belmont.
"I hope that we bring some transparency to the issues reflecting all of racing," Whitfield said. "It's more than pretty hats and horses on a sunny day. It has a huge economical impact on the country, and it has a bad side to it. I think it's important we get it out on the table."
Whitfield is concerned about the lack of a central body to regulate the sport. Because there is no horse racing equivalent of the NFL or NBA -- which are led by commissioners with widespread authority -- thoroughbred racing instead makes its regulations through individual states.
That's why the congressman gave a muted reaction when asked to comment on the sweeping recommendations made Tuesday by a safety panel established by North America's thoroughbred registry, the Jockey Club. The panel called for bans on anabolic steroids and certain types of horseshoes, as well as the regulation of the use of the riding crop by jockeys.
"It's encouraging that the Jockey Club has come up with these recommendations," Whitfield said. "But, sadly, the Jockey Club doesn't have the authority to do anything."
The witness list includes owners, breeders, veterinarians and other officials, including Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Waldrop appeared before the same subcommittee in February, along with the commissioners and union chiefs from other sports, in a hearing that examined drug use among professional athletes.
That hearing was only part of a busy year so far for sports on Capitol Hill. The Mitchell Report prompted several visits to lawmakers by baseball star Roger Clemens, who then appeared at a hearing to deny use of steroids. Two of the lead characters in the NFL's Spygate scandal have met with Sen. Arlen Specter, who had threatened further Congressional involvement.
A recent Senate hearing examined an international agreement intended to curb drug use in sports. Allegations from NBA referee Tim Donaghy have again caught the attention of Illinois Democrat Bobby Rush's subcommittee, although no new formal action has been taken.
In thoroughbred racing, Congress has leverage because of a federal law that grants simulcasting rights to states. If the industry can't find a better way to police itself, Whitfield said the government might have to intervene.
"It's surprising that so many people are calling for reform, but they don't want the federal government to be involved in any way," Whitfield said. "They don't have the authority to do it themselves. If they really wanted to do it, we could be partners and make it happen."
In preparation for the hearing, the subcommittee sent questionnaires to several thoroughbred racing entities. Most expressed support to some degree for a standardization of rules to govern horse racing, although there was a wide variety of opinions as to how to achieve the goal.
The concept of a central governing body has support from both sides of the subcommittee. Rush, the subcommittee's chairman, is recovering from surgery and will not attend the hearing, but his chief of staff, Stanley Watkins, echoed the call for a sort of authority to implement reforms.
"We don't presume it would be a panacea that would cover everything," Watkins said. "But we certainly have to look at a central agency to be a part of helping get this industry where it needs to be."