Horse racing’s efforts to clean up the sport and create a level playing field take another step forward today with the launch of a new anti-doping program.
It is an attempt to centralize the drug testing of racehorses and manage the results, as well as issue uniform penalties for horses and trainers, rather than the current patchwork rules that vary from state to state.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) was created by the federal government almost three years ago. It has two programs: Racetrack Safety, which went into effect in July, and Anti-Doping and Drug Control.
“It’s a 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 Horse Racing Integrity and Welfare Unit – its independent enforcement body – has reached agreements with all state racing commissions and/or circuits that will host live racing as of today.
Seven of the largest racing states — Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, and Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma — will continue to use their current staff to collect samples.
Arizona, Illinois and Ohio do not have a signed voluntary agreement with HISA, so it either contracted directly with current staff or hired its own staff to collect samples. Only post-race testing in New York will be handled in this way.
States that have live racing after mid-April are in talks with enforcement, HISA said.
The agency will work with accredited laboratories in Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, California, Pennsylvania and Kentucky to analyze samples.
“For the first time, race labs are being harmonized across the country and held to the same performance standards,” said Ben Mosier, executive director of the enforcement agency. “Thoroughbred racehorses are tested for the same substances at the same levels, no matter where they are or compete.”
Unlike the central agencies that govern the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL, the 38 US racing states have long been governed by rules that vary from track to track. Horses, owners, trainers, and jockeys frequently move between states to compete. Local ones would respect penalties imposed elsewhere, but inconsistencies created confusion and made it possible to trick the system.
Lazarus said that when talking to riders, they expect three things from HISA: catch the cheaters, be realistic about medications, and be aware of environmental pollutants that trainers can’t control but can trigger positive tests.
“That’s exactly what our program does,” she said recently.
HISA has met resistance in its brief existence.
Last year a federal appeals court ruled it was unconstitutional, saying Congress gave the group it created too much authority to oversee the racing industry. Congress amended the wording of the original legislation to fix this. It also gave the Federal Trade Commission the power to monitor HISA.
Court challenges in Texas and Louisiana against HISA resulted in the federal appeals court preventing its operation, so state regulations will continue to govern the sport. Circuits in Texas and Nebraska have chosen not to broadcast their simulcast signals out of state, so HISA has no authority to regulate them at this time, Lazarus said.
Due to the ongoing legal issues surrounding HISA, the anti-doping program will not begin Monday in all states as Lazarus 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 from some in the industry over the prospect of sweeping change – as well as the cost to racecourses, horse owners and trainers and the impact they will have on business.
“They have taken away certain drugs, therapy equipment and things that are really useful,” said trainer Bret Calhoun, whose stable operates in Louisiana, Kentucky and Texas. “They have the opposite effect of what they say… safety for horse and rider. They do exactly the opposite.”
Calhoun was speaking at the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association national convention in Louisiana earlier this month.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry was even more outspoken.
“The core of HISA is this: A handful of wealthy players want to control the sport through a unified pay-to-play system that will decimate the inclusive culture of horse racing,” he said at the convention.
Lazarus responds to the criticism: “We are there to make racing better.”
She has said she aims for transparent investigations and faster resolution of disputes. And Lazarus spent much of her freshman year trying to “over-communicate and over-educate.”
“I’m really confident that the message will get through,” she said.
There will be no trial period for violations under the new rules. Veterinarians who administer drugs to horses have had to familiarize themselves with the regulations, as have trainers, who are ultimately responsible for what gets into their horses.
“I think change is always hard,” Lazarus said, “and it’s like seismic change.”
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