By Lucas Marquardt
Several of the nation’s leading racing organizations joined together Tuesday to announce the launch of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, an industry-led effort to unify and enhance existing protections and to develop new reforms to ensure the safety of the sport’s equine and human athletes. The group seeks to create and implement a series of significant safety, medication, operational and integrity guidelines across Thoroughbred racing to ensure the well-being of horses and jockeys and increase transparency and accountability.
Coalition founding members include Breeders’ Cup Limited, Churchill Downs Inc., Keeneland Association Inc., the New York Racing Association Inc. (NYRA), Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and The Stronach Group.
“Our challenge is multifaceted, but our objective is simple: to make our sport safer,” Drew Fleming, president and CEO of the Breeders’ Cup, said during a press conference at the Keeneland Library. “We are committed to action now, and in the coming months and years.”
The Coalition outlined three areas in which it will strive for change and uniformity: operational, medical and organizational. “This is not just a commitment on paper,” said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs Racetrack. “These are real reforms that can and will be implemented. We have an obligation to hold one another accountable, and if any of our coalition members are violating these rules, to bring them into accordance.”
Some of the measures include:
• Require medical records follow horses through ownership transfers
• Mandate direct daily reporting by private vets to state regulatory officials
• Increase withdrawal time for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) from 24 to 48 hours, and prohibit concurrent use of multiple NSAIDs, also known as stacking
• Increase withdrawal time for corticosteroids to 14 days pre-race, and prohibit stacking
• Establish safety committees at all member tracks staffed by management, jockeys, horsemen and veterinarians, among others
• Create a Safety Steward position in all jurisdictions
• Create racing surface database
Change has never come swiftly in racing, and the methods for adopting and implementing new regulations can vary greatly by jurisdiction. To that end, Flanery said the Coalition would take a wide-ranging approach. “The reforms will run the gamut of things we can do via house rule, and those things we can work in cooperation with regulatory authorities–and our other partners,” he said. “Every option is on the table.”
Bill Thomason, president and CEO of Keeneland, said it was imperative for the coalition to engage with the public in a transparent fashion in order for the initiatives to be successful. “We’ve got to put context around [the initiatives],” he said, “And give specific steps for what we’re accomplishing.”
It isn’t the first time industry groups have come together in the name of safety. Following on the heels of Eight Belles’s fatal breakdown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, the National Thoroughbred Racing Alliance (NTRA) launched the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance. That organization has encouraged reforms largely through its certification and accreditation of member tracks.
Thomason, also chair of the NTRA Board of Directors, said the purpose of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition is to build on progress already made. “The good things the [NTRA] Alliance has done will provide a foundation for a lot of the things we’ll be working on,” he said. “There are other efforts going on around the country, and we’re going to do everything we can to consolidate and coordinate all of those efforts to provide those implementable things that will provide an immediate impact.”
News of the Coalition’s launch comes as racing faces unwelcome national scrutiny, much of it centered around the rash of fatalities earlier this year at Santa Anita and the recent breakdown of Mongolian Groom (Hightail) in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic. The industry has scrambled to respond, and changes to the political landscape have occurred rapidly. On Monday, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), a vocal critic of racing in recent months, announced she would co-sponsor the Horseracing Integrity Act. That legislation would, among other things, ban Lasix and create an independent body regulated by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that would oversee the use of drugs and medication in racing.
Regarding that issue, Drew Fleming commented, “Some of us in the Coalition are obviously for the Horseracing Integrity Act, some are openly against it. But everything’s on the table, including some form of federal legislation. One point I want to emphasize is the need for immediacy. We all know that federal legislation can take some time and that’s why we’re here today; to make immediate, impactful change.”
Fleming took a similar tack when asked about whether the Coalition would ultimately endorse synthetic tracks. “This is
Day 1, and we’re looking at all sorts of options. One of the initial things we’ll be working on is racetrack surface data. We’re going to place significant emphasis on this and we’ll look forward to what we find.”
Mike Rogers, president of The Stronach Group’s Racing Division, said his organization remains open to synthetic tracks. “Nothing’s off the table, and if that’s the decision this coalition makes or what we decide as an industry, we’re not opposed to that.”
Asked about the current mechanism for decision making, Flanery said, “Right now, we are around a table working to come to conclusions, and that’s worked well so far. Ultimately we’ll have a governing structure, but we want to be as nimble as we can.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if members holding a minority opinion on a given issue would be obligated to go along with the majority. To start, however, it seems that only those measures garnering full support of Coalition members would be brought forth.
“The number one thing to do is identify the issues we think can advance our cause,” said Flanery. “It is good to have people with different opinions in the room. We don’t want an echo chamber. [But] we are identifying those efforts we believe should be uniform across the board. For example, moving back the administration of NSAIDs and corticosteroids. We all agree on those particular pieces. And we’ll identify other medication standards that we agree on as a group, and we will push and advocate for those reforms to happen.”
He later added, “We want to hold each other accountable. A big part of this program is making sure that, as we make collective decisions about what’s good for horse racing, that all of our members move those issues forward.”
Flanery said that he hopes, and expects, the Coalition to grow. “It’s an open invitation for people to reach out to us, and we’ve been very excited about the reception we’ve gotten already,” he said. “People from around the country have called and asked how they can be part of the process.”
Currently absent from the Coalition is a horsemen’s group, but Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said in a statement, “We applaud the group. Certainly it was made clear from their announcement that the founding members are open to other important organizations providing input and direction toward the Coalition efforts. We look forward to working with the Coalition members to ensure the safety and integrity of our industry.”
The Coalition represents a huge swath of the U.S. racing, in terms of both handle and stakes races, and finds sometimes rivals in business, such as Churchill Downs and The Stronach Group, joining together. But for Rogers, the Coalition represents the push for a greater good.
“As you know, we’ve been working hard in California to make Santa Anita the safest racetrack in the country,” he said. “Sometimes it felt like we were on our own, and that’s why today we couldn’t be more excited to be here speaking with a united voice to answer the question many have been asking: how do we make the sport safer. It’s going to take everyone in this industry, from sharing information, sharing best practices, and pushing each other as much as we can.”
For more information, visit www.thoroughbredsafetycoalition.com.