Integrity and safety: the challenges U.S. racing can’t afford to lose

“More than ever, horse racing is under the microscope by animal welfare groups, the media, and the public. The racing industry must show that the health of its equine athletes is a paramount concern.” Photo:

This past month has brought to the forefront some major racing integrity and safety challenges for U.S. racing.

The Stronach Group responded after the equine fatalities at Santa Anita Park with an aggressive program of initiatives that have generally been positively received by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) and the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC).

Racing returned to Santa Anita last Friday (March 29). It is early days, but there was a horse that fell in a 6½-furlong Graded stake on Sunday (March 31) that was later euthanized according to the stewards.

On a positive note, six Mid-Atlantic states from New York to Virginia announced the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Last Thursday (March 28), the Jockey Club released a powerful report on the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019 and the timing is extremely relevant. I ask that you take the time to read the nine-page report, which I discuss in more detail later in this article.

Stronach Group action

Anyone reading this article is certainly familiar with the rash of 22 breakdowns at Santa Anita Park that took place from opening day on December 26 through March 14.

There are numerous and unrelated factors that potentially contribute to a spike in breakdowns, but it will require time and research to assess and measure all possible contributing factors.

However, some serious changes needed to be made and the Stronach Group chair, Belinda Stronach, acted decisively. On March 14, in this open letter to the industry, she detailed an unprecedented number of integrity and safety measures that were proposed and discussed at the monthly CHRB meeting last Thursday.

A number of these initiatives require regulatory approval incorporating public notice and comment periods before they can be operational. In discussions between the Stronach Group and the TOC prior to the CHRB meeting, the elimination of Lasix was agreed to be phased in starting with the 2-year-old crop in 2020. In addition, proposed significant modifications to the use of the whip were agreed, but they also need to undergo the approval process before implementation.

There has been some criticism suggesting that the whip and Lasix changes have nothing to do with the Santa Anita breakdowns. While that may be factually correct, the Thoroughbred racing industry nationally has come under severe criticism from the general public for concerns about the use of the whip and raceday medications. In following the developments during this time at Santa Anita, it was clear that there were serious concerns by mainstream animal rights groups and private individuals regarding use of the whip and medication policies.

Those who ‘will vote and end our sport’

Stronach Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo acknowledged as much in an interview with John Cherwa of the Los Angeles Times.

“We look at customers, basically everyday people who understand our game, and then we have the public, which is the outside bubble,” he said. “We’re starting to look more and more at the outside bubble to make sure that we are watching and listening to what they’re concerned about because, even if they are not fans, they’re the ones that will go to Sacramento and they’re the ones that will come out and vote and end our sport. There’s more of them than we have customers, unfortunately.”

Ritvo’s statement, acknowledging that racing in California was at risk, illustrates a serious concern.

If, for some reason, one thinks that Ritvo was overreacting, here are a few excerpts from an interview Bill Finley (BF) of the TDN did on Saturday (March 30) with Democratic Congresswoman Judy Chu (JC), who represents the California district that includes Arcadia, home to Santa Anita. Chu has been known to be an outspoken critic of certain horse racing policies.

BF asks, “What would you most like to achieve when it comes to various reforms involving racing?”

JC, “My main goal would be to ban raceday Lasix. The U.S. and Canada are the only countries that allow Lasix. The U.S. is an outlier when it comes to lack of standards … The banning of whipping is also a huge issue … I hope that the whip ban becomes a national policy.”

BF asks, “Since the Santa Anita problems began, have you heard from any of your colleagues in Congress?”

JC replies, “Those people who are supporting the Horse Racing Act and members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that oversees these horse issues, they are definitely horrified.”

In answer to another question, JC answered in part, “Actually, my greatest desire is to have nationwide reform. That’s why I am a supporter of the Horse Racing Integrity Act. That would pave the way for there to be federal standards in place.”

Promising developments

The good news is the sponsors, Representatives Barr and Tonko, re-introduced in the last two weeks the 2019 version of the Interstate Horseracing Integrity Act. Barr and Tonko are getting increased bipartisan support for the bill.

It could not be more clear. What has happened at Santa Anita is not an isolated, regional issue. Rather it reflects the result of the piecemeal state-by-state manner under which race meetings around the country are regulated and conducted.

During the last week in California, there were two promising developments in racing safety and integrity announced on the East coast.

Mid-Atlantic strategic plan

Last week, a coalition of 29 Thoroughbred organizations from the six states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia announced the formation of the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities. The organizations that supported these initiatives include racing commissions, horsemen’s and breeder organizations and regulatory and racetrack veterinarians and racetracks.

The development of a strategic plan to reduce equine fatalities in the Mid-Atlantic region is an effort to develop and share regional best practices and communication tools that can be used to minimize equine fatalities on a broad scale. This strategic plan was the result of more than a year of regional discussions among the six states.

It does not appear that the two Stronach Group-owned Maryland tracks, Pimlico and Laurel, are participating in this new alliance. One would hope that the recent events at Santa Anita would encourage the Maryland tracks to join this initiative.

The plan was developed by Dr Scott Palmer, New York State Gaming Commission equine medical director and chairman of the 2012 New York Task Force, regional veterinarians Dr Kathy Anderson and Dr Reynolds Cowles and New York Task Force member and Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (THA) Chairman/CEO Alan Foreman.  

A number of the initiatives in this plan were developed based on the 2012 New York Task Force report on Racecourse Health and Safety, which resulted from a series of breakdowns on the Aqueduct inner track in the first quarter of 2012. I wrote this article on that New York experience last month, and you can find a link to a complete copy of the NY Task Force report of 2012 in the article.

The five stated goals of this strategic plan are:

  1. Develop regional safety best practices
  2. Increase awareness and understanding of conditions associated with injury
  3. Develop improved methods to identify horses at increased risk of injury
  4. Identify and implement protective factors that will reduced the risk of injury
  5. Improve general horse health

The most valuable information for the individual owner, breeder, trainer or racing executive concerns the 20 roles and accountability listings for stakeholders in the report. These various statements are in fact best practices that should be communicated to all aspects of the racing communities at each individual racetrack, training center and farm.

Congratulations to this Mid-Atlantic group for developing standards and best practices across this important Thoroughbred racing and breeding region.

The Jockey Club’s vision

Finally, this last section is the most significant and covers this Jockey Club document: Vision 2025: To Prosper, Horse Racing Needs Comprehensive Reform

Not a week goes by that I don’t read somewhere or speak to someone who wants to know why the U.S. Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry does not have a commissioner. It will never happen, but I tried to explain why in this article, which was posted here five years ago. Nothing has changed

However, if you are interested in comprehensive racing reform in the U.S., the Jockey Club has created a new must-read document. In my mind, there is no industry organization better to undertake this initiative than the U.S. Jockey Club, which has the talent, the leadership, the resources, the deep knowledge of the industry both domestically and worldwide, and the motivation to make the hard decisions that need to be made to change and grow our industry.

Okay, if you don’t agree with me, that is fine. However, please take a few minutes and read the most compelling and provocative document on the need for industry change that I have ever read.

‘Racing is failing to regulate itself’

Here is the first paragraph from the first section of the document entitled The Current System Does Not Work:

“Racing’s current state-by-state structure for rule promulgation, passage and enforcement makes it impossible for a level playing field to exist across the country and too easy for Thoroughbreds to be subject to the nefarious actions of cheaters who are trying to beat the systems in each state and stay a step ahead of regulators and laboratories. From every angle, racing is failing to regulate itself.”

I do not believe that I have read anything like “the nefarious actions of cheaters who are trying to beat the system…” in a Jockey Club document ever. Clearly the gloves are coming off and we have to get serious if we want to get the cheaters off the track and perhaps the worst offenders even headed to jail. Here are the rest of the topics in the chapter:

  • The rule-making process is slow
  • Inadequate out-of-competition testing
  • No current double blind testing to ensure laboratories are operating at the same level
  • Insufficient research
  • No national investigative arm. Here is one sentence from this section: “Violators knowingly leverage the absence of national compliance and enforcement by orchestrating comprehensive doping regimes that occur, while the horse is placed in strategic jurisdictional training areas and not subjected to out-of-competition [testing].”
  • Lack of uniformity
  • International rules need to be adopted (and the real story on Lasix)

The next section is the meat of the document: Key Reforms, but I will conclude with a quote from the summary, the Bottom Line:

“Opponents may not want to admit it, but the majority of those involved in horse racing know that the current system is not working, and that it is time for meaningful change.

“More than ever, horse racing is under the microscope by animal welfare groups, the media, and the public. The racing industry must show that the health of its equine athletes is a paramount concern. How can the industry make this pledge? A meaningful start would be to support the passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019 and to embrace the reforms highlighted here.”

We must unite behind the Jockey Club

I hope we can all agree that the industry is broken and there is no mechanism in place to remotely suggest that it is going to fix itself.

The state regulatory de-centralized structure is broken both financially and morally and frankly rarely promotes the interests of the industry. That is why, in this current problematical industry environment, it is encouraging to see the Stronach Group work with the TOC, the CHRB, the CTT (California Thoroughbred Trainers) in trying to reset the California racing model. It is also very encouraging that leaders such as Alan Foreman in this new Mid-Atlantic strategic initiative have brought together diverse but very important industry organizations to work on significant common interests.

Finally, if we are going to win the battle with the cheaters, we must unite in our support of the Jockey Club and other motivated industry stakeholders in promoting the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019. The unchecked use of performance-enhancing drugs is destroying this industry.

We do not have to agree on all things, but I hope that we can agree on that.

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