HISA Town Hall: Regulatory Reach, Environmental Contamination, Lab Variability and More Discussed

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Trainers Ron Moquett and Dale Romans joined Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) CEO, Lisa Lazarus, on the agency's virtual town hall Monday. Both trainers sit on the HISA Horsemen's Advisory Group.

A good portion of the HISA Town Hall was spent emphasizing the role of the horsemen's advisory group as a vehicle for potential change and modification in HISA's regulatory framework, having driven tweaks to the federal authority's rules on things like pre-race electrolyte use and looser sanctions for positives related to human substances of abuse (more on that lower down).

“There's a lot of conversation right now around veterinary inspections and vet scratches, and how HISA can make a positive impact,” Lazarus added.

“Those are state processes and state judgments. But HISA, we believe, can do some things to make it better for all parties,” Lazarus added. “That's something we're talking a lot about.”

Below are summaries of some of the key portions of the Q&A.

Q: Should HISA's Remit be Broadened to Police the Sales? 

The question of whether HISA should broaden its regulatory reach to encompass the sales has been much discussed ever since Jeffrey Englehart faced a possible two-year suspension after one of his horses tested positive for clenbuterol.

Englehart argued that he did not give the horse the drug and that it had been given prior to the horse's purchase at the OBS auction a few months beforehand. A subsequent segmented hair test revealed that the clenbuterol had indeed been administered before Englehart became the trainer.

In discussing the topic, Lazarus explained that the act is written so that racehorses fall under HISA oversight only when they record their first official workout.

“And that's been interpreted to mean the first published work in Equibase,” said Lazarus. “There's some question about whether or not breeze shows would qualify, and they might, but we haven't got to that point just yet.”

Lazarus further explained that in October, she met with representatives from the three leading sales companies. “And they agreed to work together to come up with an anti-doping program that aligned with HISA, so that there's a sensible journey from weanling, yearling, 2-year-old, and then to horses of racing age.”

Both trainers argued that a strong case could be made for HISA to police the horse sales, though Moquett voiced reservations about the practicalities of such a program, like the possible licensure of parties handling horses in their formative years.

“There's a lot of information [that would need to be] gathered about working with these horses that all of a sudden is require daily… when we eventually get these horses,” said Moquett.

“Once we open that Pandora's Box, now all of a sudden we're going to require people to list who the owners are. You're going to require trainers and the consignors to have a license. You're going to start looking into places you've never looked,” Moquett added.

“I think Pandora's Box should have been opened a long time ago,” Romans responded, before broaching the topic of greater transparency on corrective surgeries performed on youngstock prior to the sales.

Q: Steps Taken to Prevent Environmental Contamination?

Another key area of concern among stakeholders is that of inadvertent contamination through the horse's environment.

“Everyone needs to play a part in making sure that we're delivering a clean and sterile—as sterile as possible—environment,” said Lazarus, before ticking off various points of address, some of which were included in a recent letter to the editor.

She said that the overall cleanliness of test barns—which are overseen by HIWU—has improved since the start of the ADMC program.

“However, when it comes to other common areas like receiving barns, that is something that needs a lot of work,” Lazarus admitted.

As such, the receiving barn is now part of the racetrack accreditation program, she said. HIWU investigators are also performing daily spot checks to determine which racetracks might not be stepping up to the task.

“We now have the opportunity to launch an investigation if we believe that, based on positive tests, there may be a contamination risk at a particular racecourse,” said Lazarus. “We also have mobile testing packs where we can test straw, soil to see whether or not we're finding substances that shouldn't be in a horse's environment.”

Q: Is a Possible 60-day Penalty Still too Onerous for Substances of Human Abuse Violations?

Under a proposed rule change, a first time violation for a positive test concerning a human substance of abuse like cocaine or methamphetamine has been lessened to a maximum 60-days. But is this still too onerous? Should it be closer to something like 14 days?

“Sixty days is really a cap,” said Lazarus, before adding that determining a possible source for the positive test is key to receiving a lesser penalty.

Also important is for stakeholders to illustrate to regulators what steps they've taken to mitigate the chances of inadvertent environmental contamination, like barring staff from urinating in the stalls and requiring them to wash their hands before mixing feed, said Lazarus.

“One of the things that struck me when I visited Ron [Moquett's] stable at Oaklawn is he has a huge poster in his barn that says, 'if you urinate in the stables, you will be fired,'” said Lazarus. “That's something, if Ron has a positive test, that would be a favorable consideration. He's contributing to what we're all trying to do which is reduce the likelihood of anything that shouldn't be in a horse's system getting into a horse's system.”

Moquett followed that up by saying how, “If you get a positive, it's very important you address the definition of how you think it got there” with HIWU.

“Before you get mad and start throwing stuff, the first thing you've got to write is the truth as you first saw it,” Moquett added, emphasizing how feigning ignorance as to the possible source of the contamination won't cut it under the new federal regime.

“Just let them know that you are conscious of the opportunities for a bad test, and that you're doing everything in your power to [prevent it],” Moquett added.

What other steps should be taken in the event of a positive test for a human substance of abuse, or for an atypical finding?

The panelists recommended that responsible parties first reach out to Alan Foreman, the horsemen's ombudsman. Hard-up stakeholders can also take advantage of a panel of pro-bono attorneys.

Not all who apply will be eligible. “But we've never denied anybody who has actually applied for pro-bono counsel to date,” said Lazarus.

Q: Why is HISA Using so Many Different Labs When Lab Variability is Such a Concern?

The TDN reported last year that a variety of differences between the laboratories—from different testing equipment to different testing methodologies to different sets of staff interpreting the results—mean that they can screen for different numbers of substances, and have varying abilities to screen for the same substances, outside of some 300 core analytes.

“The way that law is written, we're required to give the state where the testing takes place the opportunity to put their lab forward,” said Lazarus, adding how, if the lab in question fails to meet performance specifications, HISA is not required to use it.

With the recent news that HISA is no longer using the services of the University of Kentucky's Equine Analytical Chemistry Laboratory, there are now five labs used under HISA's Anti-Doping and Medication Control (ADMC) program.

“I think with five labs we can get really consistent results,” said Lazarus. “[But] if we can get down to a point where the samples… [can be processed] by three or so labs, that would be preferable.”

The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) currently conducts the lab accreditation process every two years. HIWU is working to take over that process.

Q: Is HISA Working on a Universal Owner-Trainer license?

Despite HISA requiring stakeholders to apply for a federal license, owners, trainers and other industry participants are still required to apply state-by-state for individual licenses. That might change.

“That is absolutely something on our radar, and we know that that would be a huge benefit to the horsemen,” said Lazarus. “Once we get the fundamentals of HISA in place to deliver it working well, and working smoothly, that is an area we will try to be helpful on.”

The horsemen's advisory group, said Moquett, brings the topic up once every two weeks.

“If this is going to be a truly uniform industry, then it needs to start with the very first thing, which is the licensing,” he said. “I think it's an odd deal we haven't fixed it yet.”

Q: Is the Prohibition of Toe Grabs Warranted?

While HISA generally prohibits the use of toe grabs, it offers an exemption permitting the use of traction devices in the form of either a full outer rim shoe (up to 4 mm in height) or a toe grab (up to 4 mm in height) on hindlimbs on the dirt.

The prohibition on toe grabs, said Lazarus, was based on science and research. “Internationally, toe grabs haven't been allowed for quite a long time,” she added. “The U.S. was the last racing jurisdiction to have regulations around toe grabs.”

When asked if further toe grab allowances should be given when it comes to deeper dirt surfaces, Lazarus argued that the data suggests the prohibition has been successful.

“Probably the racetrack that had the biggest complaints about this rule was Prairie Meadows, and they went from in 2022 a 2.39 [fatalities per 1000 starts rate], a much higher fatality rate. And this year, they were exceptional—they were 1.14,” said Laazarus. “I'm not suggesting the whole reason is to do with toe grabs, but at least the data shows they're not worse off with that rule than they were previously.”

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