Horse racing’s efforts to clean up the sport and level the playing field took another step forward on Monday with the launch of a new anti-doping program.
It is an attempt to centralize racehorse drug testing and manage the results, and hand out uniform penalties to horses and trainers rather than the current patchwork of rules that vary from state to state.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) was created by the federal government nearly three years ago. It has two programs: track safety, which took effect in July, and anti-doping and medication control.
“It is one standard. You can be in Kentucky, you can be in Ohio, you can be in California and you will be judged by the same standard,” said Lisa Lazarus, CEO of HISA.
HISA’s Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit – the independent enforcement body – has reached an agreement with all national race commissions and/or racecourses to have live racing from Monday.
Seven of the largest racing states – Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, as well as Oklahoma’s Will Rogers Downs – will continue to use their current staff to collect samples.
In Arizona, Illinois and Ohio, there is no signed voluntary agreement with HISA, so it contracted directly with current staff or hired its own staff to collect samples. Post-race testing is conducted this way only in New York.
States racing live after mid-April are in talks with the enforcement agency, HISA said.
The agency will work with accredited labs in Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, California, Pennsylvania and Kentucky to analyze samples.
“For the first time, race labs across the country will be harmonized and held to the same performance standards,” said Ben Mosier, executive director of the enforcement agency. “Thoroughbred racehorses will be tested for the same substances at the same levels no matter where they are or compete.”
Unlike the central offices that govern the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, the 38 US racing states have long operated under rules that vary from job to job. Horses, owners, trainers and jockeys regularly move between states to compete. Locales would respect punishments imposed elsewhere, but inconsistencies created confusion and allowed the system to be fooled.
Lazarus said that when talking to riders, they want three things from HISA: catch the cheaters, be realistic about medication and be aware of environmental contaminants that trainers can’t control but can cause positive tests.
“That’s exactly what our program does,” she said recently.
HISA met resistance in its short existence.
Last year, a federal appeals court ruled it unconstitutional because Congress had given too much authority to the group it created to oversee the racing industry. Congress modified the wording of the original legislation to resolve that. It also gave the Federal Trade Commission authority to oversee HISA.
Legal challenges in Texas and Louisiana against HISA resulted in the federal appeals court preventing the company, so state regulations will continue to govern the sport. Racetracks in Texas and Nebraska have opted not to broadcast their simulcast signals out of state, so HISA currently has no authority to regulate them, Lazarus said.
Due to the ongoing legal issues surrounding HISA, the anti-doping program will not begin in every state on Monday, as Lazarus had hoped.
“It’s not perfect,” she said. “We need to change some things, we need to see how some things go.”
There has also been vocal opposition among some in the industry about the prospect of sweeping change – as well as the cost to racetracks, horse owners and trainers, and the impact it will have on business.
“They’ve taken away certain drugs, therapy devices, things that are really beneficial,” said trainer Bret Calhoun, whose stable operates in Louisiana, Kentucky and Texas. “They have the opposite effect of what they say…safety of the horse and rider. They do absolutely the opposite.”
Calhoun spoke at the national convention of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association in Louisiana earlier this month.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry was even more blunt.
“The gist of HISA is this: a handful of wealthy players want to control the sport through a one-size-fits-all, pay-to-play arrangement that will decimate horse racing’s inclusive culture,” he said at the convention. .
Lazarus counters the criticism, saying “We’re here to make racing better.”
She has said she is committed to transparent investigations and faster resolution of disputes. And Lazarus spent much of her first year on the job trying to “over-communicate and overeducate.”
“I am hopeful that the message will get through,” she said.
There is no trial period for offenses under the new rules. Veterinarians who administer drugs to horses needed to be made aware of the regulations, as well as trainers who are ultimately responsible for what goes into their horses.
“I think change is always difficult,” Lazarus said, “and this is like seismic change.”
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