By T. D. Thornton
Facing a dire shortage of veterinarians at the state's two Thoroughbred tracks and under deadline pressure to decide whether to enter into a voluntary implementation agreement with the Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit (HIWU) prior to that entity's Jan. 1 start date, the West Virginia Racing Commission (WVRC) on Monday pressed a representative of HIWU for clarity on who, exactly, will bear responsibility if the minimum required number of equine drug testing employees can't be hired within the next six weeks.
It took some polite but persistent questioning by commissioner J.B. Akers to get an answer to that question. But Alex Waldrop, the recently retired National Thoroughbred Racing Association chief executive who now works as an advisor to HIWU, eventually conceded that “the burden right now is on HIWU.”
Akers had wanted assurance that West Virginia's racing wouldn't be subject to a shutdown if neither the commission nor the tracks could fill the federally required positions related to the coming of HIWU, an overarching national concern that has ramifications beyond just Mountaineer Park and Charles Town Races.
“I have a hard time believing that we're alone on this issue,” Akers said. “If it's only a few jurisdictions that's one thing. But if it's a substantial number of jurisdictions [that can't meet the staffing statute], I think that frames the issue a little differently.”
HIWU is the entity that will operate HISA's anti-doping program. HISA creates the rules HIWU will enforce.
In October, the WVRC, like racing commissions other states, was notified of the details of the combined agreements that HISA and HIWU want racing jurisdictions to either accept or decline prior to the Jan. 1 implementation date. Commissions and/or tracks have already been assessed costs for the 2023 operations of the two programs; if states opt-in to the agreements and pay some of the costs up front, their assessments will be reduced.
Joe Moore, the WVRC's executive director, said his state is already operating under a modified 2022 agreement with HISA on its racetrack safety program. He explained that he would like the proposed combined 2023 HISA and HIWU agreements split into two separate ones because the safety standards are a “much smoother agreement to extend [but] I believe the HIWU agreement is going to be a much heavier lift.”
At a time when the hiring marketplace is fierce nationwide and Mountaineer and Charles Town already find it difficult to obtain veterinary help, Moore stated it would be next to impossible for West Virginia to go out and hire at least 12 new people to work in drug testing oversight, which according to the incoming HIWU rules must consist of at least one veterinarian, a veterinary technician, a test barn supervisor, and five assistants at each track.
“I will tell you that neither of West Virginia's two test barns are anywhere close to this minimum,” Moore said.
“At Charles Town we have a vet supervisor who conducts our blood draw, two full-time assistants for urine collections, and a part-time assistant. Charles Town has one vet that does the pre-race and nightly card at the same time. We do not have a dedicated vet for the test barn, and we do not have a licensed vet tech,” Moore said.
“At Mountaineer Park, you have a licensed vet tech and three [per-diem] vet assistants for urine collection. Mountaineer Park has one vet for pre-race and nightly racing and no vet dedicated to the test barn,” Moore said.
Moore said one idea could be for the WVRC to staff the positions as best as it can, then ask HIWU to “fill in the gaps” while rebating the state for the positions West Virginia pays to cover.
“Or HIWU may take the stance of, 'You don't have enough [staff]. We're going to take over the whole operation,'” Moore postulated.
Another option, Moore said, would be to see if HIWU would be amenable to compromising on some of the required test barn positions by reducing or eliminating them.
Waldrop said that third option isn't likely to happen: “I don't think there is much, if any, leeway in [eliminating] the individual positions that need to be filled on a daily basis at West Virginia racetracks.”
But Waldrop did add that, “I do think that a cooperative effort between West Virginia and HIWU is the best way to go forward here. But I can't deliver that today. I can't promise that will be the case.”
Akers asked Moore if it would even be possible for the WVRC to post the jobs, interview candidates, perform background checks, and hire and train them prior to the Jan. 1, 2023, deadline.
Moore replied, “Commissioner, this couldn't be done by January of 2028. The racing commission does not have the funding to hire 12 additional personnel on a full-time basis.”
Willing and available veterinarians, Moore added, “don't exist out there right now.”
Waldrop explained that HISA and HIWU could assist with hiring by tapping into the resources of Drug Free Sport International, which has been hired to build HISA's independent Anti-Doping and Medication Control enforcement agency.
But while technicians and specimen collectors can be more easily trained to do their jobs, Waldrop admitted that, “The veterinary aspects are the most challenging. And I can tell you that HIWU is well aware of that, and they've been aware of that for some time. That's probably the biggest hurdle that they see in the near term. And they certainly intend to be prepared on Jan. 1.”
Waldrop continued: “Vets are hard to come by anywhere in the country right now, though, so I'm not going to sit here and say West Virginia is entirely unique. Equine vets [who are] familiar with the racetrack, that's a challenge. But it's one that HIWU has accepted, and they are confident that they can meet it.”
Akers then again prompted Waldrop to clarify who'd be held responsible if that didn't happen.
“Is it going to be HIWU's position, if, you know, that the state of West Virginia is out of compliance and it's our fault this didn't happen?” Akers asked. “Or is HIWU going to take responsibility and say that [the WVRC] made reasonable attempts and couldn't find the personnel to hire? Or is our racing jurisdiction going to be allegedly out of compliance with the statutory scheme, and therefore threatened by you with regard to whether we're even allowed to race or not?”
Waldrop replied that, “At this point in time, 'Who's out of compliance?' is an issue we could debate. But I think from the industry standpoint, it's HIWU's intention to be up and running and prepared to go Jan. 1.”
Waldrop continued: “One of the challenges you have in West Virginia [is] that you don't have the budgetary resources to hire these individuals…and I respect [and] understand that. HIWU doesn't have that challenge. HIWU has the financial resources to hire these people. So it's one of those hurdles that can be overcome because HIWU has that ability…. HIWU is part of Drug Free Sport, which is an international organization which has massive resources, financial as well as personnel, that they can draw upon.”
Akers said that it was his understanding that HIWU, HISA and Drug Free Sport don't currently have any regulatory veterinarians on staff.
“You're correct,” Waldrop answered. “You're focusing on exactly the right point, which is the challenge here is reg vets. The other positions we will provide. The reg vets are the challenge.”
But Akers still hadn't received a direct answer to his compliance question, so he respectfully but emphatically asked a third time if West Virginia was at risk of having its racing shut down over not having the required HIWU hires in place.
“I don't think that last scenario is going to occur, sir,” Waldrop replied. “HIWU will work with HISA, and do their level best to keep racing going in West Virginia without interruption to provide the staff that's necessary…So I would say to you that the burden right now is on HIWU to be prepared on Jan. 1.”
Akers said he appreciated that answer, adding that while he understood that Waldrop isn't a HIWU executive, he did want the minutes of the meeting to reflect that the HIWU advisor had articulated that “the burden should be presently on HIWU to make sure that these requirements are implemented by Jan. 1 to the extent that those are their mandates.”
In light of a long list of questions that Akers said he still had about entering into a voluntary HIWU agreement for 2023, Waldrop offered to set up a conference meeting in about two weeks between HIWU's executive director and general counsel and any interested West Virginia racing stakeholders and commission members.
The commission ended up taking no action on Monday on either opting into or out of the HISA and HIWU agreements for 2023.