By Bill Finley
Having already declared that the “days of permissive medication are over in California,” California Horse Racing Board Chairman Dr. Gregory Ferraro told the TDN that the movement away from medications in the state will be a swift one. Appearing on the TDN Writers’ Room podcast, Ferraro set the timeline for California racing to ban all race-day medications at 12 to 18 months.
“I think you will see major changes in the next 12 to 18 months,” he said. “We have a mandate from the governor to make these changes and we are determined to carry them out. California racing has gone through a crisis recently and out of crisis comes change. That change is we are going to become a no-medication state in the end.”
Once a practicing racetrack vet, Ferraro said he was among those who advocated for permissive race-day medications when they were first being introduced, but said he had changed his mind over time.
“In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, racing in the U.S. and in California made a decision to go with permissive medication and I was one of the ones who argued for it,” he said. “We thought it was the right way to go. By the early to mid-nineties it became apparent that this choice was probably a mistake. In the two decades that passed since then, several red flags have come up–decreased number of starts, increased number of injuries, the severity of injuries. We began to call the industry’s attention to this, but the industry was slow to change. Once they had taken the path of permitted medication, they were slow to change despite the fact the rest of the world was doing without.”
Ferraro was recently hired by Governor Gavin Newsom to head the CHRB and was given a mandate to make the sport safer. Ferraro said that Newsom, at times a harsh critic of racing, is satisfied with the reform effort and is willing let the sport work on its issues.
“In the period following last winter and spring’s problems at Santa Anita and prior to my appointment, he was very concerned and was seriously considering precluding racing in the state,” Ferraro said. “Since the new board has been appointed, he has asked us to submit a list of intended reforms, which we have submitted to him and he has approved. If we move along the path to adopting the reforms we have listed for him, my feeling is the state of California does not have to worry about Sacramento causing a cancellation of racing.”
On the whip issue, Ferraro said it has yet to be determined what direction racing in California will go but that changes will be made.
“We have to make some sort of change,” he said. “As the rules stand now, the public won’t stand for it. It’s probably the number one complaint that racetracks get, so we will be making a change. The reason we postponed it from last week’s meeting is because of the newly formed Thoroughbred Safety Coalition. We wanted to have a chance to consult with them. It would be nice if all racing jurisdictions adapted the same rule.”
When touching on the synthetic surface issue, Ferraro indicated that there will not be a rush to eliminate dirt tracks in the state.
“What we’re after is a safe track,” he said. “In regards to long-term changes, we’re not opposed to synthetic tracks and feel there might be some advantages to them. But at the moment there is no good product that fits the needs of Santa Anita. If you look at the synthetic surfaces that are workable at Woodbine and Golden Gate, they have an ambient temperature and moisture content that doesn’t vary very much. At Santa Anita, the problem they had before in the winter time was one of rain in the morning, cold in the morning and 100 degrees in the afternoon. Under those conditions, the synthetic tracks they had at Santa Anita and Del Mar broke down and weren’t satisfactory. Someone needs to show us they have a product that is going to be serviceable. It’s going to take a considerable investment to put one in. Given the past history of synthetics in California, you can’t expect a racetrack to make that move again without pretty good assurances that the product they’re going to put in will last.”