By Bill Finley
Scott Chaney takes over as the executive director of the California Horse Racing Board at a pivotal time for racing in the state. He will be asked to steer racing through the coronavirus outbreak while focusing on animal welfare and integrity issues. A lawyer, a former assistant trainer and steward, Chaney sat down with the TDN to discuss his thoughts on his new job and tackling the challenges that he will face.
TDN: The Stronach Group is trying very hard to have racing resume at Santa Anita and at Golden Gate Fields, as well. Does the CHRB play any role in this so far as whether or not those tracks will be able to run again? And if so, what?
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SC: The short answer is no. We haven't played a significant role in their requests with the Los Angeles County Health Department. To this point, the CHRB has taken the position that we're not opposed to the concept. In fact, we support the idea that horse racing continue because we think there are good arguments for it doing so. It has continued safely in Orange County at Los Alamitos. But we've left this up to local health departments to really address the health concerns. That's what they're there for. We haven't substituted our judgment for the health board's. But should the Los Angeles County Health Department allow racing, we wouldn't object to it in any way.
TDN: In the press release announcing that you were the new executive director you made a point of saying that the two main priorities for you are integrity and horse welfare. So let's just take one at a time and let's start with integrity. The recent indictments of the 27 individuals in a horse doping scheme had nothing to do with California racing. None of the people involved race there. But, nonetheless, it shed an eye on the industry as a whole and the things that the industry is doing right and the things that industry is doing wrong when it comes to cheating. What should the sport have learned from this and how can the sport take those lessons and use them to clean up the game?
SC: When I first read the indictments, my first thought was, of course, this would never happen in California racing. But then you read a little bit further and that's based on the fact that we have one of the best testing laboratories on the planet. Then you read a little further and you read that it's not really a question of testing. The best laboratory on the planet couldn't have detected what these folks were doing. What it does is kind of make us all realize that testing alone, even if it's the best in the world, is not going to satisfy and buttress the idea of integrity on its own. It needs to be a holistic approach. Investigations are important and that is not something any particular jurisdiction is immune from. It's something that we all have to face. You correctly pointed out that none of the people involved raced here anytime in the recent past or on any kind of regular basis. But even though they weren't active participants here, everything tends to be painted with a broad brush. And so for me, it's a lesson that integrity is not something that can be forgotten. If you would have asked the same question, “What are the most important things to you as executive director?” four months ago, I might've said animal welfare and integrity might not have been part of that. But it has to be part of the conversation now. If people don't think that horse races aren't being conducted fairly, they're just not going to wager and then the industry collapses.
TDN: You just mentioned testing. The people accused of doping in the indictments allegedly drugged hundreds, if not thousands of horses, and not one had a positive testing for any of the drugs they were allegedly using. That led a lot of people to believe that racing needs to focus more on boots on the ground, investigators, surveillance. And maybe that is a more appropriate or a better way of catching the people who break the rules. Where does CHRB stand on that and what do you personally think about that approach?
SC: The CHRB, to the extent that I can speak for us after four days on the job, supports that approach. Our testing at UC Davis is one of the best in the world. But what folks don't realize, it's not a static thing. Every time you discover a new test or make a test more finite, the wrongdoers find something else. And so then you have to go to the next level. You're constantly looking to refine testing and make it better, which is something that we do all the time. We're in the middle of some contract negotiations for the lab in order to make it even better than it is now. But the other piece of that is boots on the ground. I guess I should call it more brick and mortar. One of the recommendations in the fatality report that came out about two months ago after tragedies in Santa Anita last year was surveillance cameras. Santa Anita has a state-of-the-art surveillance system at their track and it's everywhere. There are cameras everywhere. As a steward when I was there, it was extremely helpful in terms of putting cases on in front of us. We could literally see the rule violation taking place on camera. That's one way. Another involves manpower. In California we're lucky, we're well-funded and we have a vibrant investigative staff. But it's never enough. You always need a few more people.
TDN: Let's move on to the horse welfare issues, something that is obviously going to affect the future of this industry. The issue has sort of been shifted into the background because of the coronavirus situation and because Santa Anita is not racing, but it remains a priority. When it comes to doing right by the animal and making this sport as safe as it possibly can be, how far do you think California has come and how far do you think California still has to go?
SC: I would be lying if I tried to make a number up or if I tried to give you some sort of percentage. We've come a long way for sure. I've been a steward a long time and I've been pretty active in writing regulations on policies and animal welfare, and, specifically, riding crop reform has been a big issue of mine. Sadly, we had a number of breakdowns last year at Santa Anita. It was an awful time for racing. If there's a silver lining, if there's some positive that came out of it, it's that the industry in California and across the country, is ripe for reform. We're ready. Here, we've done a lot of the easy stuff. The [CHRB report on the Santa Anita fatalities] came out about two months ago. My job as executive director will be implementing all of the suggestions and recommendations outlined in that report and then going even further. I like to think I have a different perspective. Obviously, I grew up in racing. I was an assistant trainer. I've been a steward. I started in racing because I love horses and I wanted to work with them on a daily basis. And so, to me, animal welfare has to be number one. I get reports if we have a catastrophic injury. When I get one of those, it hurts and my goal is to make that go away. The goal is zero. Each year, each month, each day we should be challenging ourselves to come up with ways to make racing more safe. It's going to be an industry approach, however. Right now I've taken a job with the California Horse Racing Board. At the end of the day, we're a regulatory body and our job will be to put forth policies and regulations that make racing safer. But we're not the only group who can do that. Every stakeholder has that ability.
TDN: Let's stay on the issue of the whipping. This is something that has been talked about in California for a long time. Should we ban the whip and if we don't ban it, what sort of rules should we have? We know California is looking to put in place very strict rules regarding the whip, but it seems that the can keeps getting kicked down the road and nothing definitive ever happens. So, a two part question, when might we see changes to the whipping rules in California and what would you like those changes to be at the end of the day when all the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed?
SC: I don't think jockeys should carry crops. It's not necessary. To me, it's not a safety issue. That's a red herring. Ten years from now, if jockeys are still carrying riding crops, we've taken a wrong turn somewhere. This is a national issue and I think everybody will eventually be on board. I also know that change comes slowly in racing and that there should be some incremental approach. That's what the California Horse Racing Board is trying to do. I wrote the original rule, which is the jockey cannot hit a horse more than three times in succession without giving the horse a chance to respond. That's the rule now in California and it has kind of filtered around the country. We have a new rule out, which is under the 45-day comment period. It should be on the May board meeting and it will change the whip rule again. Basically it's two times, six total in the race, and they have to be underhanded. That is, you can't turn your stick up. It would be the most restrictive rule that I know of on the planet. This couldn't be more restrictive. If the board passes it in the next month or two, it would be law in the next three or four months. So whip reform is not on the back burner in California and especially now with me as executive director.
TDN: You said that you would like to see the day when the jockeys do not carry whips, period. You're one of many people that have a say in this. You have stakeholders you have to talk to. There are the members of the California Horse Racing Board. So you don't get to make this decision all by yourself. But, in a perfect world, how far away are we from the day when no whips are allowed in California?
SC: In California, I would be surprised if riders have whips in two years. Personally, I would like it before that. I'm not the only one who has a say. In fact, I can nudge and encourage and try to help out the board. But at the end of the day, I serve the six, hopefully at some point, seven, board members. But I'm not speaking out of turn. I think this is also the chairman's stated goal, but he also recognizes that we should have at least an incremental approach to be fair to jockeys and other stakeholders. It would be a sea change in racing. I think it would be a good one. Hopefully, one of the perspectives that I bring is that I have a significant life outside of racing and it's increasingly becoming difficult to me to justify the use of the whip. I think when we're in horse racing, you tend to be sort of habitualized to it and that sometimes it's a good idea to kind of step out and see what a new fan or someone who doesn't know anything about racing thinks about it.
TDN: At the height of the problems at Santa Anita last year, the animal rights community was a real thorn in horse racing's side and threatened to do severe damage, perhaps to the point where the sport would actually be banned in California. I've never quite got a good feeling about where we are now. Do you think the animal rights people are saying, “We're happy with the industry, that things have gotten better and therefore we're going to back off a little bit,” or do you think the animal rights people are still as vitriolic as ever and still as determined as ever to create problems for the sport?
SC: I think it's a spectrum. When you say “animal rights activist,” it's not a monolithic group. It's like saying horse racing people are a monolithic group. Admittedly, I'm kind of on the front edge of reform, whereas maybe the rest of the industry might not be in the same spot, and that's true of animal rights activists as well. There are some very reasonable groups out there who want us to conduct racing in the safest possible way and have been very supportive in terms of reform and ideas and helping us, actually pushing us to places where we should go. At the same time, there are some pretty fringe groups out there who won't be happy until racing doesn't exist in California or the country or the rest of the world. You get the sense that those groups will never be satisfied. We could take every precaution known to man to prevent every injury you could possibly think of and those groups will not be happy until racing has ceased. I think that racing is in a lot better position than it was a year ago, coronavirus notwithstanding, in terms of reforms that we've taken and having people actually understand what we actually do and how horses are treated. I was an assistant trainer for eight years. I have intimate knowledge with respect to horse care, especially in Southern California, which is the best on the planet. Thoroughbred race horses in California eat better than I do. And that's saying something because I do Ironman for fun. To a large extent, they get way better care than your average backyard horse. And I think we as an industry need to point that out and also trumpet the reforms we're taking. A lot of the conversation has been driven by fringe animal rights groups who won't ever be satisfied.
TDN: You threw your hat in the ring when the position of executive director for the CHRB opened up in 2013 and now say you probably weren't ready for the job at that time. Why not? And how are you different today than you were seven years ago?
SC: That's a good question. Thanks for asking it. I think there are two fronts on that. Back then, this job seemed like sort of a next logical step in my progression in racing, if you will, and it became open. It seemed like something I should apply for. I remember talking to two of the board members who were interviewing me at the time and they said, “I'm surprised you want the job.” And I said, “I'm not sure that I do,” which is probably not the best answer if you're trying to get a job. Rick Baedeker was an excellent choice and I learned a lot as a steward from watching him do the job. And I think the second point, and part of the reason I took the job now, is I think the industry is a little more ready for me in the sense that over the course of the last year we've become a lot more open to reform. I felt like I could be a little truer to myself if I took the job at this point.
TDN: You talked a little bit about your background and being involved in Ironman competitions. Other things that people should know about you: You grew up in Maryland, your parents owned a few horses. You went to Dartmouth undergrad, then you went to USC Law School. How the heck does a guy with that sort of background wind up working on the backstretch?
SC: My parents are very proud that after an Ivy League education and a law degree, that I decided I wanted to train horses. It's serendipity in some ways. When I was in law school out in California, I decided I wanted to do some sort of equine law as a summer job and applied to a few law firms in Kentucky. Then my first year I decided just to work at the racetrack. I thought it would be neat. I actually met a trainer called Darrell Vienna, who's also an attorney, through his law partner at the time. She went to USC as well. I walked hots through my first summer and then sort of the rest was history. The second summer I groomed a couple of horses and actually even tried to groom while I was in law school, but I found that too exhausting. So I finished law school, took the bar and then became his assistant full time. So it was kind of a weird progression. But I was the kid who in law school who went to Santa Anita every weekend to watch horses.