First, it’s 65 pages. Second, it’s full of formal, legal and otherwise long-winded language that will test even an English teacher’s inner voice, but United States Senate Bill 4547 – the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020 – brings vast change to the country’s racing industry.
Or it will. Signed into law in late December, the act will take effect July 1, 2022, with some potential early rollout of certain items.
The act creates the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, a not-for-profit corporation with the mission of establishing uniform safety standards for racing, while improving the safety and welfare of participating horses and humans. That simple purpose statement belies a big challenge, one in the works since 2012 if not before by groups inside and outside the industry. The law was built on a similar bill put forth in the House of Representatives in 2015, 2017 and 2019, but gained more support by adding safety and welfare responsibilities to the integrity piece, picked up a key sponsor in Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky last summer and added more backing within the industry. The bill passed the House and the Senate and went to President Donald Trump as part of a massive end-of-the-year spending bill that included coronavirus economic relief, military pay raises and more.
So now what?
Simply put, work. The authority took its first steps with the creation of a nominating committee tasked with selecting members of an overall board of directors and two standing committees – Anti-doping and Medication Control and Racetrack Safety. Co-chaired by former Major League Baseball executive Len Coleman and University of Kentucky dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment Dr. Nancy Cox, the nominating committee also includes past president of the United States Tennis Association Katrina Adams, former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners Dr. Jerry Black, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Marine Corps commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford, former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, and former president of NBC Sports Ken Schanzer.
The board itself will include nine members – five from outside the equine industry and four representing the industry’s various constituencies – while the committees will have seven members each.
“The nominating committee has asked for recommendations through written requests, ads, and word of mouth within and outside of the equine industry,” said Jockey Club general counsel Marc Summers via written response. “The board and committees will comprise individuals from outside the equine industry and persons with Thoroughbred industry experience and expertise. The authority will be required to maintain robust conflicts-of-interest requirements for all board members and employees.”
Once the board, committees and staff are in place, the authority will start the steps of creating medication and safety programs, engaging the United States Anti-Doping Agency (responsible for anti-doping in U.S. Olympic sports among others) for anti-doping and medication control. The rules must be approved by the Federal Trade Commission, after public comment and then the authority will “work with USADA to formalize the nationwide anti-doping and medication control system,” according to Summers.
Despite its national scope and seemingly new direction, the program is built on existing standards in place in racing from various entities including the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, World Anti-Doping Agency and the Association of Racing Commissioners International.
In addition, the new law does not eliminate the need for state racing commissions.
“Pursuant to the preemption provision in the legislation, racing in all states will automatically be subject to the rules and regulations promulgated by the authority, and the authority, along with USADA, will have the right to enforce compliance,” said Summers. “Notably, the authority and USADA may enter into agreements with state racing commissions for services consistent with the enforcement of the racetrack safety program, services consistent with the enforcement of the anti-doping and medication control program, and to monitor and enforce racetrack compliance with the standards developed by the authority.”
Racing commissions will also be responsible for areas beyond the scope of the authority, such as licensing and racing rules.
As big as the HISA reform is, the Mid-Atlantic ought to be well-prepared for much of the change thanks to regional cooperation among the racing states with respect to medication policy and other safety/welfare standards agreed upon in the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities.
“The things we’ve done, I’m not so sure that what the authority does is going to be too far astray from what we’ve already put in place,” said Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission. “They’re all best practices. If there’s something that isn’t, I’ve got no problem fixing stuff. The whole point is to make it better.”
Maryland-based veterinarian Dr. Kathy Anderson agreed, and paid credit to the region’s approach to cooperative medication and safety policies.
“The Mid-Atlantic has been very cohesive as a region and I think we have really tried to be on the front end of improving safety for racing as well as integrity,” she said. “They’re pretty much the same goal. If you improve integrity, you’re going to improve safety and if you improve safety you’re going to improve integrity. That’s why we’ve had, for 10 years or more, these Mid-Atlantic stakeholder meetings with horsemen, racing officials, racetrack owners and management involved.”
Alan Foreman, CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, targeted regional uniformity years ago and made enough progress to have the concept get pitched nationally.
“We were doing the Mid-Atlantic thing, we had had the task force report in New York, the Mid-Atlantic was moving to do things collectively and some of the industry organizations grabbed on and said we should do it nationally,” Foreman said. “That’s how the Mid-Atlantic uniform program became the national uniform program. We started the multiple points system [for trainer violations], we required our laboratories to get accredited, which meant everybody in the country was going to get their laboratories accredited. We were talking about third-party Lasix, now everybody’s doing third-party Lasix.”
There’s more, but the point is the region led much of the movement toward uniformity even if that progress was voluntary and not necessarily enforced by an overall regulatory body. Eventually, some of that progress stalled as some states and racetracks adjusted recommendations or didn’t complete the full changes in the uniformity plans. Racing’s diverse regulatory agencies left gaps in the best intentions.
“The reality was there were jurisdictions that were just not willing to play ball, that were dragging their feet,” Foreman said. “Others were very slow to make changes. For every person that was saying you have a roadmap for uniformity, there were two others saying you can’t mandate it, it’s all voluntary and if you can’t mandate it then what good is it?”
Foreman and many in racing were actually against some of the early drafts of legislative moves (the Horse Racing Integrity Acts of 2017 and 2019, for example). The proposals didn’t go far enough, left out key pieces such as aftercare and offered no compromise on the race-day use of Lasix. Of course, those early efforts came before some of the developments of the last few years – the spike in equine deaths at Santa Anita Park, the federal charges against prominent trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis and high-profile medication positives in major races.
“People were just getting frustrated that the current course couldn’t continue if the industry was going to survive,” Foreman said. “The question became what is wrong with the integrity act? Could it get fixed? Is there a willingness to look at what needs to get done in order to make it work?”
Those questions spurred more discussions among industry leaders including The Jockey Club, the NTRA and horsemen’s groups, the creation of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition (founded by Breeders’ Cup, Churchill Downs, Del Mar, Keeneland, the New York Racing Association and The Stronach Group) in 2019 and an expansion of the original integrity act to include provisions for safety and welfare. In addition, USADA’s role was clarified, the authority structure was created and what became the final Senate bill began to take shape.
Like Foreman, Anderson came to be in favor of the 2020 version of the legislation because of those changes and more. She was opposed to the original legislation, and testified before Congress about it in January 2020.
“I believed it was not going to improve the safety of racehorses,” she said of the House bill. “It was a kneejerk medication document that really didn’t address a lot of our underlying issues, and it also did not have the governance nor the financial structure to be successful. The AAEP and a number of stakeholders have gotten behind the HISA because it does address several pillars – one being uniformity, which is without a doubt the most important piece, the safety is too but we back into that through uniformity and [the new legislation] actually has identified a subcommittee for that.”
Foreman called safety a key component of the new law. Making it a priority changed the model from something that simply regulated doping and penalized bad actors to a plan that racing could use as a selling point, as a way to show critics that safety was a big part of the equation.
Locally, the various pieces of the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan have shown a decrease in racetrack fatalities – again providing a road map of sorts for the national rollout.
“We expanded the Horseracing Integrity Act to include safety standards and welfare standards, the kind of things that are in the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan and the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition work that should be mandated across the country,” said Foreman. “The current NTRA accreditation program is voluntary. Voluntary wasn’t going to work. I’ve got no problems with standardizing medication rules, but if the concern is the public concern of horses dying on the racetrack then you needed to expand the bill to include safety and welfare standards. You see that in the bill now. They built that out.”
Thoroughbred owner and breeder Tom Rooney considers the new law from a variety of angles. He is on the Maryland Horse Breeders Association board. He represented Florida in the U.S. House of Representatives and his family owns the Pittsburgh Steelers NFL team (the “league” model many have used as an example for racing).
“Racing has an opportunity with this board – to have a central governing body that almost acts like a commissioner’s office, that has the ability to impose sanctions if there are violations so you don’t have situations where Maryland is different from Pennsylvania, which is different from Florida and so on,” Rooney said. “One of the goals of this act is for people outside of our industry to look at us and not think there’s some corruption going on. Can we at least get to the point where we point to this board and say, ‘We do have a governing body.’?”
As Rooney put it, racing should be able to point to regulations that ensure integrity and safety and be able to tell the public that the industry is doing its best for horses.
“I don’t think we had that before,” he said. “I think it’s a good opportunity.”
Looking, focusing ahead
The next few months will see the creation of the board and standing committees, then the various steps toward establishing rules for doping, permitted medications, penalties and so on.
Anderson and others stressed the importance of out-of-competition testing, but the task list is long. The use of Lasix, once (and potentially still) a major hurdle to clear, will need to be worked out beyond a three-year compromise window allowing its use in non-stakes races and in horses ages 3 and up.
Funding mechanisms will have to be created. The roles of state racing commissions must be solidified. Adjudication and discipline structures need to be put in place. How can laboratories be further standardized? To ensure nationwide adaptation, new rules will have to go through the Federal Trade Commission – adding another new wrinkle.
Call the new law the scaffolding (Anderson’s word). The trusses, rafters, joists, studs, walls, floors will come in time.
“I believe they have all the pieces in place to get there, but we have to let the process unfold,” the veterinarian said. “A good nominating committee, good governance, good standing committees – if they can get them together with quality individuals in place and they will work together, then we can get there.”
As usual, money will matter. All of this comes with increased costs. “They’re going to have to figure out efficiencies and if they start to impose fees on the industry that are onerous on the tracks or the industry otherwise, they’ll do harm rather than good in the long term,” said Foreman. “You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and try not to cause economic harm, but still accomplish what you want from an integrity standpoint.”
Finally, the HISA is about survival. Greyhound racing in the United States is down to four tracks in three states – West Virginia, Arkansas and Iowa – due in large part to pressure from animal-rights groups. Without proper oversight, and improved integrity and safety efforts, horse racing could be the next target. Though horse racing didn’t choose state-by-state regulation (and its inherent inconsistencies), that’s always been the model. Changing it won’t be easy.
“I don’t have a better answer,” Foreman said. “Racing has tried to find a better answer. I know people said be careful what you wish for but if they continued to do what they were doing, other than big event days or whatever, we’d be banished to the wilderness. You can just see it. People don’t understand why we’re able to do it this way.”
Finally, all this effort – the legislation, the lobbying, the committees, the financing, the research, the politics, the various initialed organizations, all of it – is for one reason. The horses, and their health, safety and welfare.
“That needs to be your starting point, the horse,” Anderson said. “From there, get into the rest of it. The horse is what matters. The breeding business, the sales business, the racing business and back to the breeding business or to alternative careers – all of it is contingent upon the safety of the racehorse.”