Horse Racing Round Table Shows Both Industry Leaders, Humane Society Support Key Safety Reforms

Posted on: August 12, 2019, 01:28h. 

Last updated on: August 12, 2019, 01:30h.

Horse racing industry leaders gathered at Saratoga, N.Y. on Sunday for the annual Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing, and as it has for almost all of 2019, safety and animal welfare dominated the discussion.

Valerie Pringle, a Humane Society of the United States campaign manager for equine protection, speaks on behalf of the Horseracing Integrity Act, a federal bill that would nationalize standards for racing. Interest in the bill has grown since 30 horses died at Santa Anita over a six-month span earlier this year. (Image: The Jockey Club)

The event, organized by The Jockey Club, featured speakers on improving racing surfaces, handling crises, and support for the Horseracing Integrity Act (HIA), federal legislation that calls for the establishment of national standards in the sport.

The conference comes after 30 horses died at Santa Anita in a six-month span that ended in June. The Southern California track, which will host the Breeders’ Cup championship races in November, suspended racing for several weeks in March to inspect track conditions and determine why the horses died.

In addition, The Stronach Group, the track’s owner, proposed an ambitious reform package to promote equine safety, including an eventual ban on giving race day injections of drugs, such as Lasix, that can mask injuries. Other major national industry players have since pledged to help implement similar reforms in their states.

William Lear Jr., vice chairman of The Jockey Club, laid it out succinctly in his remarks in support of the bill sponsored by US Reps. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Andy Barr (R-Ky.).

“We all know things have to change,” Lear said. “And prominent among them is the way we handle medication regulation in the United States.”

Trainers ‘Ready for Change’

For the first time in the event’s history, a representative from an animal welfare organization spoke at the conference. Valerie Pringle, a Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) campaign manager for equine protection, spent most of her time discussing the act.

She also wanted to make it clear that the HSUS supports racing, adding the Humane Society isn’t “one of the animal welfare crazies who want to shut you down.”

To that end, the group wants racing to be as safe as possible. For the organization, that means races filled with horses that don’t have drugs in their system.

If a horse has to race on drugs, we don’t believe they should be racing,” she said. “It’s that simple.”

The bill can be a real game changer for the sport, Pringle said. Other sports played across the country have national rule books, she added. So, racing should be no different.

Two days before the Round Table, a group of 16 US horse trainers issued a statement expressing their support for the legislation. Among those who attached their name to the “Open Letter to the Thoroughbred Community” were Shug McGaughey, Mark Hennig, Todd Pletcher, and Nick Zito.

In the letter, the trainers acknowledged there is some controversy within the racing community about dealing with increasing costs and regulations.

“But the sport finds itself amid an ongoing crisis of confidence and the need to reform and restore public trust more than justifies the necessary sacrifices,” they wrote. ”We are ready for change and will embrace it for the greater good.”

Horsemen’s Group Opposes Bill

While the act has brought some animal welfare groups and racing industry organizations together, the bill does not have unanimous support.

For starters, some question a provision in the current bill that gives state racing commissions the option to increase the takeout on pari-mutuel wagering in order to fund initiatives a national law would mandate. That language wasn’t in the 2017 version of the bill.

Horse racing takeouts average around 17 percent, which is high compared to other forms of gambling. The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation fears higher takeouts may force racing’s bettors, the people who pay to keep the sport going, to take their wagering dollars elsewhere.

In addition, the National Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association, a group that represents owners, breeders, and trainers, has expressed serious reservations about prohibiting race-day medications.

They believe the Senate version of the bill filed in June by US Senators Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) is a knee-jerk reaction to what happened at Santa Anita.

“If Lasix is completely banned, the number of fatalities on race tracks throughout the country will increase,” said Eric Hamelback, the group’s CEO. “While we are committed to finding answers that will prevent, reduce, and solve the occurrence of any fatality for our thoroughbred athletes, this bill is NOT the answer.”