Horse racing seeking to implement variety of safety reforms

Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
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A movement is underway in horse racing to clean up the sport by enacting uniform safety standards that everyone in the industry would have to abide by.

An integrity and safety bill is being reviewed by the Senate that could put national standards in place by the start of 2022. In the meantime, different states and tracks are implementing rules to address concerns about doping, medication and optics.

The rules include eliminating performance-enhancing substances, restricting the use of an anti-bleeding medication and placing limits on the use of a bronchodilator that can enhance muscle development. There would also be restrictions on how – and how many times – a jockey can whip a horse consecutively during a race.

“At some point, we need to get those rules so that nationwide we have the same rules everywhere,” trainer Kenny McPeek said this week before saddling Preakness-winning filly Swiss Skydiver in the Distaff at the Breeders’ Cup world championships this weekend.

The U.S. government catching two prominent trainers involved in a widespread scheme to drug horses, and California’s Santa Anita racetrack getting through its fall season without a single racing fatality are examples of independent efforts to clean up the sport.

But without a national governing body, horse racing has long relied on jurisdictions making their own rules, which partially contributed to the suspicious success of indicted trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro and the death of Grade 1 winner X Y Jet in Navarro’s care.

If the “Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act” that made its way through the U.S. House of Representatives is passed by the Senate and signed into law, as expected, those types of incidents would likely be prevented going forward because an independent authority would set regulations that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency would then enforce.

“It will be a game changer, I think, for the industry when it comes time to protect the health and safety of the horses and the integrity and fairness of the competition,” said Travis T. Tygart, CEO of USADA, which already is getting calls to its anonymous tip line on horse racing. “It is going to be clearing out the bushel to get to, `All right, let’s clean this thing up and restore this sport to what it once was.”‘

It will be up to the horse racing industry to figure out how to pay for new standardized testing and enforcement, but states already spend roughly $30 million annually in that department, which be streamlined for better effectiveness.

“We can’t afford not to do it,” National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and CEO Alex Waldrop said. “It’s not as if we can just say, `Well, too bad, too expensive.’ The costs of not doing it are far greater than the cost of doing it.”

After a spike of horse deaths in 2019 into 2020, California put money and effort into improving track and safety conditions and got through the summer at Del Mar and fall meet at Santa Anita with just one fatal breakdown among 3,457 horses that left the starting gate. Aidan Butler, chief operating officer of 1/ST Racing that owns Santa Anita, and the California Horse Racing Board said they put worked with horsemen and the state government to institute “dozens of safety initiatives” that drastically reduced fatalities and set a new safety bar for the rest of the country.

One of those initiatives was a zero-tolerance policy on clenbuterol, a bronchodilator sometimes given to increase muscle mass instead of treating respiratory disease as intended.

“As far as safety goes, this is the No. 1,” said trainer Mark Casse, who has six horses in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup and has long been critical of clenbuterol as a potentially harmful stimulant. “It decreases bone strength, but it also leads to heart conditions. It’s very hard on the heart. There’s a lot of trainers out there that don’t want to subject their horses to that type of treatment, and they’re competing at an unlevel playing field.”

Two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert on Wednesday vowed to “do better” after three positive tests for medication this year and said he’s hiring outside oversight.

While Baffert horses tested positive for a corticosteroid and a local anesthetic, Lasix has become a focus in recent years for the race-day use of the medication that reduces pulmonary bleeding. Even though Lasix hasn’t been linked to any deaths, 2-year-olds cannot be given it on race days beginning this year, and that extends next year to all horses running in stakes races at the tracks that host the Triple Crown races.

McPeek supports Lasix restrictions for 2-year-olds and stakes horses but said “the average, everyday horse” often needs the medication. A common argument against Lasix is that it isn’t used in Europe, where racing is almost exclusively done on grass, not the dirt that is more prominent in North America.

“I can tell you this without a doubt, and I run more horses probably than anybody – dirt, synthetic and turf – that horses bleed more on dirt than anything else,” Casse said. “It’s more strenuous on them, and when it’s more strenuous, horses bleed.”

The most visible change is the use of the riding crop by jockeys. It’s not considered a cause of breakdowns or injuries, but the whip has become a hot-button issue around a sport sensitive to the perception that fans are put off by a horse being struck repeatedly down the stretch.

New Jersey banned whipping a horse for any reason other than safety, California contains it to six times a race, Kentucky – where the Breeders’ Cup is being run – limits it to two in a row before pausing for a response and Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack allows only underhanded motions.

“We can eliminate the perception of the whip harming the horse if you go to underhanded with some kind of restrictions and a lot of penalty when the rules are broken,” said retired jockey Jerry Bailey, now an NBC Sports analyst.

Fellow Hall of Fame riders John Velazquez and Mike Smith have cited safety in voicing criticism of whip restrictions, which are being debated nationwide. Spokesman Pat McKenna said the New York Racing Association supports changes to “strictly limit its use and add severe penalties for overuse” while acknowledging the crop is a way of communicating with horses.

“In fairness to riders, trainers, owners and the betting public, these rules should be consistent between states,” McKenna said.

That is the goal of the safety and integrity bill that could go into effect Jan. 1, 2022. And if it is passed, for the first time the industry would be able to set standard rules across the board that could preserve the long-term health of the sport.

Appeals court strikes down federal horseracing rules act

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NEW ORLEANS — Congress unconstitutionally gave too much power to a nonprofit authority it created in 2020 to develop and enforce horseracing rules, a federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled Friday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, or HISA, is “facially unconstitutional.”

The authority created by the act was meant to bring uniform policies and enforcement to horseracing amid doping scandals and racetrack horse deaths. But the 5th Circuit – in two rulings issued Friday – ruled in favor of opponents of the act in lawsuits brought by horseracing associations and state officials in Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia.

The Federal Trade Commission has the ultimate authority to approve or reject HISA regulations, but it can’t modify them. And the authority can reject proposed modifications.

Three 5th Circuit judges agreed with opponents of the act – including the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and similar groups in multiple states – that the setup gave too much power to the nongovernmental authority and too little to the FTC.

“A cardinal constitutional principle is that federal power can be wielded only by the federal government. Private entities may do so only if they are subordinate to an agency,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel that ruled in the Texas case.

The same panel, which also included judges Carolyn Dineen King and Kurt Engelhardt, cited the Texas ruling in a separate order in favor of horseracing interests and regulators challenging HISA in a different case.

The chair of the horseracing authority’s board of directors said it would ask for further court review. Friday’s ruling could be appealed to the full 5th Circuit court of the Supreme Court.

“If today’s ruling were to stand, it would not go into effect until January 10, 2023 at the earliest,” Charles Scheeler said in an email. “We are focused on continuing our critical work to protect the safety and integrity of Thoroughbred racing, including the launch of HISA’s Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program on January 1, 2023.”

The ruling was criticized by Marty Irby, executive director of the Animal Wellness Action organization. “Over the course of three Congresses, the most brilliant legal minds on Capitol Hill addressed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act’s constitutionality and ultimately decided that the Federal Trade Commission’s limited oversight was sufficient,” Irby said in an email.

Among the subjects covered by the authority’s rules and enforcement were jockey safety (including a national concussion protocol), the riding crop and how often riders can use it during a race, racetrack accreditation, and the reporting of training and veterinary records.

Animal rights groups, who supported the law, pointed to scandals in the industry involving medication and the treatment of horses.

Duncan wrote that in declaring HISA unconstitutional, “we do not question Congress’s judgment about problems in the horseracing industry. That political call falls outside our lane.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, hailed the ruling on Twitter, calling HISA a “federal takeover of Louisiana horse racing.”

Fractional interest in Flightline sells for $4.6 million

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Keeneland says a 2.5% fractional interest in Breeders’ Cup Classic champion Flightline has sold for $4.6 million during a special auction before the start of its November Breeding Stock Sale.

Brookdale Farm’s Freddy Seitz signed the ticket for an undisclosed client, the track announced in a release. The sale comes a day after ownership of the 4-year-old son of Tapit retired the unbeaten colt following his record 8\-length victory in Saturday’s $6 million, Grade 1 Classic at Keeneland. Flightline likely locked up Horse of the Year honors with his fourth Grade 1 victory in six starts by a combined victory margin of 71 lengths – dominance that has drawn comparisons to legendary Triple Crown champion Secretariat.

Flightline will begin his breeding career next year at Lane’s End Farms in Versailles, Kentucky, but a stud fee has yet to be determined. West Point Thoroughbreds, part of the bay colt’s ownership, offered the fractional interest. Seitz said the buyer wanted to “make a big splash” and get more involved in the business.

“With a special horse like (Flightline) all you can do is get involved and then just hope for the best,” Seitz said in the release.

“There has never been a horse that has done what he has done for however many years, back to Secretariat. You just have to pay up and get involved, and this is kind of what he’s thinking.”