It began with a media death watch during a cold and wet winter at Santa Anita Park. As the number of racing and training fatalities increased at the Arcadia, Calif., track (it topped out at 30 from Dec. 26 through June 22), local and then national media began to take notice.
Santa Anita owner Belinda Stronach huddled with her company’s upper management and other stakeholders in California racing and emerged with significant reforms meant to address the tragic spike in fatalities and the ensuing public relations crisis.
The reforms, focused on stricter medication and safety protocols, had a positive impact. But the cat was out of the bag and one of the sport’s somber truths – that horses can and do die as a result of injuries sustained during competition or training – was widely disseminated to a general public that previously knew little to nothing about horse racing.
The “Santa Anita problem” became national, with some newspapers and local television stations reporting on horse racing fatalities at tracks in Texas, Kentucky, Maryland and New York, among other states.
Extremists who for years have wanted the sport eliminated were gaining credibility through widening media coverage. Local, state and national politicians sounded off on the subject after hearing from their constituents. The horse industry itself – lacking national leadership – was on its heels.
For nearly 40 years, I’ve depended on the horse racing industry to feed my family. So do many friends and associates who work on the backstretch or frontside of racetracks, at breeding farms, sales companies and many affiliated businesses. This is a major business that has a significant impact on jobs and the economy, according to a 2017 Economic Impact Study conducted by the American Horse Council.
Many of us are worried about the sport’s future, knowing that the public’s attitude is being shaped in a way that could jeopardize its very existence. The animal rights advocates – some of whom may have good intentions – and those extremists who demand an end to horse racing are organized and picking up new supporters with each publicized fatality. But who is pushing back against them, I’ve been asked, what are some of our industry’s leaders doing in the face of this existential threat to the future of the game and so many livelihoods?
All I could do is shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know.”
There has to be a better answer, I thought, so I wrote to the many organizations in this sport, asking what they are doing to address this crisis.
Following, in italics, is the email sent to a number of national or regional groups (I omitted racetrack owners, some of which have offered recent press releases on this subject). Two organizations I contacted, The Jockeys’ Guild and Breeders’ Cup, declined to provide a written response. Breeders’ Cup CEO Craig Fravel explained during a meeting that his organization has been at the forefront of horse safety and welfare, supporting numerous reforms, including those enacted in California by The Stronach Group and California Horse Racing Board. Terry Meyocks, President and CEO of the Jockeys’ Guild, was traveling and unable to file a written response but said his organization obviously supports equine safety reforms because what’s good for the horse is good for Guild members.
I appreciate each of these industry organization leaders taking time out of their schedules to help all of us understand what they are doing in the face of this crisis.
Paulick email: In recent weeks, I’ve been approached and contacted by numerous people whose livelihoods depend on the Thoroughbred industry, telling me they fear for the industry’s future, and asking me, “What is (fill in the name of the organization) doing to protect the racing industry?”
I throw that question to all of you individually, as leaders of national organizations: What is your organization doing in response to the crisis now facing this industry, one that demands that the industry and those in positions of authority do absolutely everything humanly possible to protect the health and welfare of horses?
David Foley, Executive Director, American Association of Equine Practitioners: The long-term survival of horse racing and the AAEP’s role in achieving this has been forefront since the events at Santa Anita. There is no question that the sport is in the midst of a crisis and our leaders recognize the urgency of the situation. The AAEP is not a regulatory body, and so we work to influence change through the development of best practice recommendations and position statements. Education is our primary focus and the chief way through which we affect change among equine veterinarians.
Our current efforts in racing have focused principally on the appropriate use of therapeutic medication, especially bisphosphonates. In 2018, an AAEP task force issued a guidance statement to our membership warning against any administration of the drug which deviates from the manufacturer’s recommendation.
This year we are partnering with the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) and Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation to fund bisphosphonate research so that everyone involved in the care of the horse understands the impact of using this medication.
The AAEP also in 2019 formed a new Medication Task Force which has been charged with reexamining the association’s long-held position statements on the therapeutic use of medication in all horses involved in competition as well as the public auction arena. This group’s work has just started but they feel the same sense of urgency that others in the racing industry do. Our 2019 Annual Convention later this year will present more education to veterinarians about bisphosphonates and the use of furosemide, in addition to sessions on ethical practice for all facets of the profession, which are an annual fixture.
Additionally, we are taking a fresh look at our position on the Horseracing Integrity Act in light of the changing landscape in racing. In 2017, we opposed the legislation principally because of the ban on race-day furosemide administration, which we continue to support as an effective treatment for exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH). Given the current industry crisis, we feel that uniformity in medication rules, testing, security and enforcement is critical for the longevity of the sport and is a goal that I know many agree with. In fact, we currently have many members working on our behalf to try to effect change within the various rule-making bodies to do that very thing.
I appreciate the opportunity to respond. The AAEP’s membership includes veterinarians from all disciplines and breeds, and so balancing our activities across such a wide spectrum is sometimes a challenge for our resources. But we are committed to being of continued service to the racing industry.
Alan Foreman, Chairman and CEO, Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association: The THA and its member organizations has, for years, led a cooperative collaboration with our racetracks, regulators, breeder organizations and veterinarians in the Mid-Atlantic region to implement strategies, rules, protocols and policies whose fundamental purpose has been to protect the safety and welfare of the horse.
This is fact, not rhetoric. Our work in earnest began in response to the spate of fatalities at Aqueduct in 2011-’12. Collectively, the Mid-Atlantic stakeholders and regulators swiftly moved to implement all of the recommendations contained in the New York Task Force Report on Racehorse Health and Safety.
The region prepared and adopted a Uniform Medication and Drug Testing Program, including a multiple medication violation program, that became the forerunner for the National Uniform Medication Program. It added enhanced out-of-competition testing to the program. Every element of the program is in force in the Mid Atlantic. Over the past two years, the Mid-Atlantic region developed and has implemented a Strategic Plan to Reduce Racehorse Fatalities that was formally adopted prior to the crisis at Santa Anita and is a living Plan in the entire Mid-Atlantic.
Its entire focus is identifying horses at risk, better safety protocols, sharing of information, regional collaboration, and the safety of our racing surfaces. There is not a single area of racehorse health and safety that is free from scrutiny. Our work is evidence and scientifically based.
The results of the work in the Mid-Atlantic have been promising. Fatalities in the region have been reduced 35% since 2013. New York has experienced their lowest fatality rate in decades. The region meets collectively twice a year and each meeting is focused on the Plan and what can be done to enhance the safety and welfare of our horses. The region will meet again in September-October and no doubt will be looking at further steps that can be taken beyond what we are currently doing.
Recently, the region has been engaged in the process of creating an Interstate Anti-Doping and Drug Testing Standards Compact to allow for the swift and collective uniform adoption of medication and testing rules and policies. Already, Maryland and Delaware have, by legislation, enacted the Compact.
Unfortunately, much of our work and the successes of our strategies, as well as the recommendations contained in the New York Task Force Report, have been largely ignored by the industry beyond the region. Further, much of the industry press has ignored the successes in the Mid-Atlantic in favor of a narrative that the industry is indifferent to racehorse health and safety, that horsemen are corrupt and that the industry’s only salvation is enactment of the Horseracing Integrity Act. If the Horseracing Integrity Act had been in place prior to the spate of breakdowns at Santa Anita, it would have had no effect whatsoever.
The crisis at Santa Anita could have been avoided. There are numerous similarities to the Aqueduct crisis that were red flags that were ignored. The THA, and the Mid-Atlantic, refuse to be painted by the broad brush of the industry critics who believe Santa Anita is representative of the industry. Nonetheless, we will learn from this crisis, as we do on an ongoing basis, and will continue to explore and implement safety measures and protocols that will ensure that we are doing everything we can to protect the safety and welfare of our horses. There is certainly a heightened awareness in the region about our current situation, and we are going to work collectively, as we have done, to fulfill our responsibility to the horse and the industry at large. We invite you to join in that effort with us.
Finally since you ask if we are doing “everything humanly possible to protect the health and welfare of our horses” we must point out, as reflected in our long-standing position and in our Congressional testimony last year, that our position on race-day medication is based upon what is in the best interests of the health and welfare of the horse. The current scientific and veterinary research supports the use of Lasix (furosemide) on race day under the current regulatory protocols as being in the best interests of the safety, health and welfare of the horse, and it would be irresponsible to deny our horses access to this medication during racing. There is no evidence that lasix compromises the horse or in any way contributes to breakdowns. The proposed reforms are political measures and are not health, safety and welfare based. Since your question is, are we “doing everything humanly to protect the health and welfare of horse”, the current regulatory practice and protocols fulfill that mandate and are clearly in furtherance of doing everything humanly possible we can do to protect the health, safety and welfare of the horse.
James Gagliano, President and Chief Operating Officer, The Jockey Club: Recently I read with great interest a comment from a prominent industry leader who described the sport as “on the cusp of a crisis.”
I disagree. We are squarely in a crisis.
Throughout 2019, Thoroughbred horse racing has been under tremendous pressure with the eyes of the nation focused squarely on the sport. The Jockey Club believes that without serious reform, the industry will continue to decline, and racing could be banned in some areas of the country.
Today’s matters of safety and welfare of the horse are not new to The Jockey Club. In 2008, The Jockey Club formed the Thoroughbred Safety Committee to “review every facet of equine health and to recommend actions the industry can take to improve the health and safety of Thoroughbreds.” Since then, the committee has drawn upon hours of testimony from industry stakeholders, commissioned original research, and reviewed countless pages of analyses to reach 32 specific recommendations issued to date, almost all centered upon safety:
One such recommendation called for all racetracks to participate in the Equine Injury Database for purposes of supporting research into factors associated with an increased risk of injury. This information has proved to be vital, and as a free service, The Jockey Club InCompass Solutions Inc. now provides data services to assist veterinarians with identification of unique risk factors for horses.
But will we ever know the exact cause of the pattern in fatalities at Santa Anita or similar events at other tracks? Not without understanding more about equine health, which means going beyond what we are currently collecting in the Equine Injury Database and adding full transparency into medical treatments, injuries, and health records of all racehorses.
Strides have been made in reducing fatalities and injuries with commendable proposals such as improved oversight of horses by regulatory vets, stricter medication rules, and other reforms including limits on whip use — but the implementation has been inconsistent. This isn’t surprising considering the regulation of the U.S. horse racing industry is a patchwork of rules across 38 separate jurisdictions with little coordination or adoption of the highest standards.
The Jockey Club believes that the passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act (HIA) is the most important initiative we are pursuing and that it is also the most important thing we, as an industry, can do to improve equine health, protect horses, and ensure the integrity of the sport.
For the industry to truly thrive a universal set of standards is needed, including expanded out-of-competition testing and adoption of more stringent rules and penalties. The Jockey Club has been actively working for the passage of HIA, which would create a private, independent, conflict-of-interest-free horse racing anti-doping authority (HADA) under the aegis of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the group charged with keeping Olympic athletes drug free. The HADA board will include six horse racing experts and will be funded by the industry.
The bill is moving through Congress with about 140 cosponsors in the House, and for the first time a bipartisan companion bill was introduced in the Senate. We call upon everyone in the industry to become familiar with the bill – and to support it.
Beyond HIA, we believe three other initiatives supported by The Jockey Club will have a substantial impact on improving equine health and protecting horses. Their collective successes will be vital for the industry to show that horse health and welfare is indeed our highest priority.
- Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, which in 2019 will provide $1,338,858 to fund eight new projects at seven universities, nine continuing projects, and three career development awards to fund veterinary research to benefit all horses. Since 1983 Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation has underwritten 366 projects at 44 universities. Grayson has supported important work such as the use of Positron Emission Tomography, or PET. This technology could greatly improve trainers’ and vets’ ability to detect problems that other research has indicated pre-exist in 90% of catastrophic injuries.
- Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, a first-of-its-kind industry resource, bringing data and science to bear in practical ways to improve horse health and safety. This service needs to be expanded and become a standard resource at every racetrack and training center in North America.
- Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, which represents a tremendous improvement for the welfare of Thoroughbreds by developing reliable sources of funding and strict accreditation standards for grant recipients. This organization needs more funding, and all aspects of the industry must contribute.
Eric Hamelback, Chief Executive Officer, National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (NHBPA):At the NHBPA, we are proud of our many initiatives on this front.
At the core of the National HBPA mission is encouraging the highest standards of horsemanship so as to continuously improve the care, health and safety of the horse. These are the guiding principles for all that we do; the better our equine athletes do, the better we do, the better horseracing does. National HBPA understands, intrinsically, that protecting the health and welfare of our horses is not only in the best interest of the horses, but also in horsemen’s interest, as well.
Some specific examples of National HBPA actions to protect the health and welfare of our horses include:
- NHBPA follows scientifically validated medical recommendations of the nation’s leading veterinary organizations. NHBPA is explicit in its belief that health care decisions on individual horses should always involve a veterinarian, with the best interests of the horse as the primary objective;
- NHBPA is advocating for the establishment of an office within the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Veterinary Services Lab (NVSL) that will oversee and establish absolute uniform laboratory protocols;
- NHBPA is advocating for a mandatory national horseracing checkoff program. This new program would generate funds needed to support the many initiatives designed to improve welfare and safety of horses and riders, such as underwriting medical research, enhancements to equine safety and testing uniformity;
- NHBPA supports random out of competition testingfor prohibited substances, with 100% of our samples tested in laboratories accredited by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the single most important standard for calibration and testing laboratories around the world. This off-the-track testing helps ensure the integrity of our industry;
- NHBPA demands horses that become injured during racing and training are placed on a veterinarians’ list that is in place to prevent entry in any racing jurisdiction until properly cleared to race again by veterinarians in 100% of the jurisdictions;
- NHBPA also advocates thatall horses entered to race should be subjected to pre-race veterinary examinations to ensure compliance with accepted flexion, palpation, and observation standards, and that veterinarians’ lists must be nationally published and mutually enforced among racing jurisdictions – no exceptions;
- NHBPA and affiliates advocate and fund research toward understanding and reducing equine injuries, illnesses, preventive medicine, responsible training and the humane treatment of our racehorses;
- NHBPA advocates for initiatives improving policies to inform and continue education for trainers while supporting owners and veterinarians.
- NHBPA seeks mandatory protocols for every track to undergo an independent surface materials analysis and assessment every year;
- NHBPA supports the continued development, adoption, implementation and enforcement of nationwide uniform rules that promote safety and integrity in racing; and
- NHBPA passionately supports the continued development and enhancement of off-the-track Thoroughbred retirement facilities and adoption groups along with programs at affiliated racetracks providing for the aftercare of our horses when their racing careers are over.
This is just the beginning; we at the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association know we must – and we can – do even more to ensure that each horse everywhere in the United States is given the attention and protection it deserves. We will continue to look to national veterinary medical leadership for guidance in the process. National HBPA embraces this responsibility and remains open to serious, substantive and scientifically-backed reforms that protect the health and welfare of our equine athletes
A personal note: One of my blessings during my career with horses was spending many years with a special horse named Remington. Remington was enjoying a second career as a polo pony when I met him, and he taught me more about the game than any human. He enjoyed a long, productive and happy life long after his racing days were behind him.
We owe it to the horses to reward them for all they give us as owners, breeders and racing fans – to provide them well-deserved rest and care once their racing saddles have been removed for the last time. The thoroughbred industry must embrace this responsibility of care through contributions to organizations such as the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.
Ed Martin, President, Association of Racing Commissioners International: Excuse the blunt assessment: the number one problem that will kill the sport is not tied to doping, Lasix, uniformity, or even new forms of competition. It’s catastrophic breakdowns.
Unless this industry collectively unites and deals with this problem, nothing else will matter. At risk horses need to be better identified, monitored, and excluded as necessary. The reforms of recent years — pre-race exams, new drug rules, treatment reporting — have all helped, but they are not enough.
This is not an integrity problem, it’s an equine welfare and suitability for racing problem. And, it might be a track surface problem in some instances. Some, like the previous head of the Humane Society, have pointed to breeding for speed instead of durability as a factor as have others who have been in the business for years. (Watch video)
The ARCI has, for the most part, not been empowered by anyone to impose any policy or requirement. Our ultimate contribution lies in the identification of problems, suggested solutions and options, or recommended policies. Our members are government agencies who operate within parameters set by statute, which are sometimes frustrating or limiting.
Collectively we educate and encourage those agencies to utilize statistical information to assist in the identification of an at-risk horse, are revisiting existing policies on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), moving to dramatically increase penalties for violations that should be regarded as equine endangerment and not just a drug infraction. In the East, RCI members are working to implement the Mid-Atlantic strategic plan. Industry stakeholders are being encouraged to call and let someone know if a horse does not look right;jockeys are being advised that they can take a horse to a vet without repercussions; and some jurisdictions are taking a new look at the claiming rules.
The RCI underscores the need for a more dramatic and sweeping reform to close a major hole in the United States regulatory framework addressing horses and aspects of the industry currently unregulated. At the very least we believe there needs to be independent oversight and monitoring of how racehorses are treated and cared for prior to being entered in a race or coming onto the grounds of a licensed facility. Federal legislation or a patchwork of state statutes would be necessary if government is to do that. But that could take years and would probably be fiercely resisted by some.
We believe the most expeditious way to achieve this is for the industry to rely upon an existing policy already universally adopted: a horse cannot race without being registered with the appropriate breed registry, which determines in its sole discretion the requirements and conditions for that registration. We believe these requirements can and should be expanded and would not require time-consuming legislation.
One benefit would be a universal requirement for the submission of all veterinary records and disclosure of all procedures as well as out of competition equine suitability examinations, with testing, and review of medical records. Horses deemed to require increased monitoring would be flagged by the registry’s veterinary monitors and regulatory veterinarians could access these records to better do their job when a horse comes under their jurisdiction.
We have started a dialogue on this issue and obviously are open to other options. Certainly this responsibility could be placed in the hands of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA. But that would take legislation and time that horse racing may not have.
The best we can do to help racing is to be honest about the problem, what is missing, and what would be the most expeditious path to take given the fact that time is a factor. The investigation in California, when complete, may reveal additional insights. Hopefully those results will come soon.
Dan Metzger, President, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association: Thoroughbred racing is amid a crisis which threatens to undermine the future of our sport. The tragic events at Santa Anita forced the Thoroughbred industry to reexamine its regulatory structure, as well as the rules and policies related to safety and equine health. The industry demands leadership and all stakeholders must work collaboratively to protect first and foremost, the Thoroughbreds and jockeys which compete at racetracks across the United States, in addition to putting in measures to strengthen public confidence in our sport.
For months, TOBA has been involved in productive discussions with numerous industry stakeholders, including owners, breeders, racetracks, organizations, trainers, veterinarians and regulators, on how to reach a consensus on establishing a centralized rule making authority. TOBA continues to support the Horseracing Integrity Act and we also joined the Lasix Coalition, which was announced earlier this spring. TOBA launched an educational campaign to better inform our members and the industry on the use of bisphosphonates. We will continue to be proactive in all initiatives addressing the integrity of our sport and the safety and welfare of the horse.
TOBA represents many of Thoroughbred racing’s leading owners and breeders. TOBA’s American Graded Stakes Committee has a profound impact on the sport, including at the racetrack, the auction ring and the breeding shed. In 2005, the American Graded Stakes Committee implemented the first of its kind drug testing protocols for all graded stakes. As guardian of the premier races in the United States, TOBA will continue to consider all measures to enhance the integrity of Thoroughbred racing and breeding.
Alex Waldrop, President and CEO, National Thoroughbred Racing Association: One of the most crucial things the NTRA is doing to enhance the safety and welfare of our athletes is using our resources to help fund the science in those very areas. In April, the NTRA presented a gift of $100,000 to further support equine surfaces and safety research at the University of Kentucky under the direction of Mick Peterson. Peterson’s work with the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory (RSTL) is already utilized by tracks around the world to improve their surfaces. Added support of such studies can help further zero in on the causal factors behind equine injuries and work to mitigate them. Until we lower the number of equine injuries and fatalities even further, negative voices will be the loudest, irrespective of what we might say or promise to do. The best way to achieve that goal is by putting our weight behind projects that can directly result in more proactive care, better diagnoses, and safer racing environments for all of our horses.
Strengthening the Safety and Integrity Alliance has been another ongoing focus of the NTRA. Tracks accredited by the Alliance collectively have a rate of equine fatalities well below the national average but protocols and standards necessary to gain and maintain accreditation are constantly evolving with the goal being a safer racing environment for our equine and human athletes. Jockey Concussion Management Guidelines are among the recent additions, updates and changes to the Code of Standards this year. As various jurisdictions evaluate and implement enhanced safety and welfare protocols, the Alliance will also be examining those protocols to determine what changes need to be implemented at all of its member tracks.
One of the biggest impacts of the Alliance is its work to develop the current workforce as well as the next generation of workers at all levels of the industry. We need a trained workforce to effectively execute the best practices and analyze the data gleaned through the scientific process. In 2018, the Alliance co‐founded and produced along with the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) the “RMTC/NTRA Regulatory Veterinary Continuing Education” program, a first of its kind continuing education conference for regulatory and official racetrack veterinarians. The Alliance has also played a crucial role in racetrack superintendents’ development, the University of Kentucky/NTRA Race Course Managers Certificate, and the Medstar Telehealth Initiative for jockeys.
The NTRA is also working tirelessly from a communications standpoint to identify ways to provide balance, perspective and facts about our sport. To that end, we are working in conjunction with other industry organizations and outside experts toward developing a more comprehensive crisis management plan that details strategies, tools and tactics for responding to customers, media and stakeholders during a crisis or potential crisis.
Whether it’s better education of the dangers of bisphosphonates that may negatively impact bone growth in young horses, more pre and post racing drug testing, more thorough post mortem evaluations of horses that die on track, or better technology to diagnose illness or weakness before it leads to catastrophic injury, rest assured that many people are working on these initiatives on a daily basis. Ultimately, responding to a crisis like this is more a marathon than a sprint. It is important to get it right, even if it takes weeks or even months to find the underlying causes of the problem.
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