LEXINGTON, Ky. — It’s a start, they stressed.
For years one of the chief criticisms of those who run thoroughbred racing is that the sport’s major players refused to work together. Each entity was protective of its own turf, with its own procedures and set of rules. Instead of one voice to speak for and address important issues within the industry, there was a scattering of often competing jurisdictions.
Tuesday at the Keeneland Library, representatives of major American tracks promised to change that. Along with the Breeders’ Cup, they announced the formation of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition to “work together to develop new reforms to ensure the safety of the sport’s equine and human athletes.”
Breeders’ Cup Limited, the Keeneland Association, Churchill Downs Inc., the New York Racing Association, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the Stronach Group introduced themselves as founding members of the coalition. Together, they represent more than 85 percent of the graded stakes races in America.
“We believe that coming together and leveraging our collective resources and establishing a leadership position will help our industry as a whole as we address the public’s concern about safety and welfare,” said Drew Fleming, president and CEO of the Breeders’ Cup. “We know we have to get this right.”
He’s right about that. Perhaps never in the history of the sport has the game been in such peril. The threat is not so much economic as public perception, fueled by the national attention given to the high number of equine fatalities during training and racing last winter and spring at Santa Anita Park in California.
It didn’t help that the Breeders’ Cup this month at Santa Anita suffered a fatality in its biggest race, the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, when Mongolian Groom, a 4-year old gelding, was euthanized after sustaining fractures in his left hind leg during the final furlong.
Long before that, the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, had proposed and implemented medical and operational reforms to address safety issues. Other tracks, including Keeneland and Churchill Downs, had announced new safety initiatives. Behind the scenes, there was an effort by the major tracks to find a way to work together in a formal manner, an effort that produced Tuesday’s announcement.
“Sometimes we felt like we were on our own,” Mike Rogers, president of racing for the Stronach Group, said Tuesday. “That’s why today we couldn’t be more excited to speak here as a united voice.”
What sort of reforms are we talking about? As part of Tuesday’s announcement, the tracks said they have agreed on uniform medical reforms such as increasing the withdrawal time for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to 48 hours pre-race; increase the withdrawal time for the administration of corticosteroids to 14 days pre-race; prohibit the use of bisphosphonates on horses in training or racing, with a penalty of 12 months on the vet’s list if detected.
Operation and organization reforms were also announced, including random out-of-competition testing on horses, uniform riding crop rules, more collection of racing surface data and the creation of a safety steward position in all jurisdictions, to name a few.
Members of the coalition said they eventually hope to hire someone to lead the group, but for now members are working on how the organization will proceed, while also inviting other members to join. “We’re open to everyone,” said Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery.
They promised to work through differences to form a consensus on issues, hold each other accountable, and be transparent. For instance, asked about the possibility of returning to synthetic tracks, which some statistical studies have shown to be safer for horses in training and racing, Fleming said, “Everything is on the table.”
Why now? Why after years of calls for a racing commissioner or some sort of universal board to govern what is a messy sport, have the major players come together to say they will work together?
“It’s time,” said Keeneland president Bill Thomason. “We have achieved a recognition from the people in this sport that these are serious issues that are not going to go away. They are the focal point around the country in a lot of different jurisdictions. This has caused us to all understand the realities of how we are all inter-connected.
“In order for us to be successful as an industry, we cannot do it independently. We have got to do it together. There are moments in history when that becomes apparent and obvious. That’s where we are in the history of racing in America.”
The Thoroughbred Safety Coalition in and of itself won’t solve all of horse racing’s problems. And there are plenty of issues and procedures to work through about how this unified effort will actually work. But you have to start somewhere. Tuesday signaled a start.