Underdog sports teams headed to the playoffs, a big tournament or some important game will frequently proclaim, “We all we got.” And follow up with, “We all we need.”
Well, for racing, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020 is all we got. We’ll find out if it’s all we need.
The federal legislation passed the House of Representatives in September, cleared the Senate in December after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signed on, and became law when President Donald Trump signed it as part of a massive legislative package that addressed a myriad of other areas of far more importance to the country.
But here we are. Commencing July 1, 2022, horse racing in the United States will be governed under standards created by the new Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (aside, I’m still hung up on horseracing as one word but that’s another issue) which will work with the United States Anti-Doping Agency and the Federal Trade Commission.
So now what? I tried to ask that question for the news feature article in this magazine. I got some detail, plenty of generalities, some written statements from The Jockey Club’s attorney, referrals to a couple websites (one with a flow chart) and a lot of hope.
People – well, most people I guess – in racing hope the HISA succeeds. They hope it brings the stability the sport needs. They hope it convinces the public that racing does right by the horses. They hope it matters. They hope it translates to uniform national medication rules, meaningful penalties for violators, safety standards, better aftercare protocols, robust out-of-competition testing, safer races and longer careers for horses. From all of that, those same people hope the HISA helps American racing produce more wagering handle, higher purses and a better international reputation.
You for it or against it? Ever since the thought of federal intervention came to be, that question got asked from Saratoga to Sunray Downs, Penn National to Pompano, Lexington to Laurel. Momentum started as far back as 2012 with the creation of the Water Hay Oats Alliance and gained support from a long list of entities and individuals. The Humane Society of the United States backed the efforts. The Jockey Club became an important driver of the message. A House bill was created by New York’s Paul Tonko and Kentucky’s Andy Barr in 2017.
Even with that support, federal legislation looked like a longshot to pass. Racing couldn’t agree on a way forward within its own ranks. How could it convince politicians and others from the outside to put in the work? Many in racing expressed concern over the effort’s intentions. They pointed to racing’s slow drift toward uniformity as a sign of progress. Somewhere, the use of the anti-bleeding medication Lasix became part of the discussion. It all sounded pretty familiar. Even with the best of intentions and signs of incremental progress, racing has tried – and failed – at national policy for decades. And then everything changed.
At Santa Anita Park in California, horses died on the racetrack at an alarming rate in 2018 and 2019. In early 2020, prominent trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis were swept up in an FBI investigation and indicted on various charges tied to performance-enhancing drugs given to racehorses. A March 2020 editorial in The Washington Post of all places – headlined “Horse racing has outlived its time” – suggested that racing could be abolished.
Piled on top of all that, racing went through perhaps its strangest season due to the Covid-19 pandemic with tracks racing without spectators, a delayed Triple Crown season, questions about casino purse subsidies, substantial decreases in races and purses (though fairly steady handle figures), positive drug tests for horses trained by the sport’s most visible trainer Bob Baffert (a bill supporter), disturbing data from the Navarro/Servis horses about clenbuterol usage and so on.
A Kentucky Senator, McConnell said the Post piece spurred him to get involved though a re-election challenge probably didn’t hurt. Like McConnell, racing entities threw more support at the bill. And then it passed. Packaged with a slew of other legislative actions that had nothing to do with racing, the HISA briefly sat in limbo as Trump threatened a veto while challenging the results of November’s presidential election but became law just before the end of the year.
In this space, I have long advocated for uniform medication rules and other policies in the HISA but I can’t say I was an early supporter. The Lasix issue hung there. Still does. Same with the thought that the new law might breed more of the same, or simply another layer of the same. Will trainers be able to challenge penalties the way they do now, and delay them for years? Will suspensions have real teeth? Will owners be held accountable for their decisions to use certain trainers?
Like many, I’ve got questions. But, also like many, I’m tired of the status quo.
To the individuals and groups that worked on this, congratulations. To those same individuals and groups, get this right. Because you’re all we got.