Proposed Horse Racing Reforms Gaining Traction

Oct 4, 2019

Picture Taken During September Yearling Sale At Keeneland
Credit Stu Johnson

The Thoroughbred racing industry has recently come under increased public scrutiny.  An unusually high number of horse fatalities, particularly in California, along with reports of Triple Crown winner Justify testing positive in 2018 for a banned substance are causing those in horse racing to do deep reflection on a sport which dates back to the 1600’s.  It’s an issue being discussed at racetracks in Kentucky all the way to Capitol Hill.

Terms like "an industry in crisis" or "a critical pivotal time" have been tossed around in referring to the horse racing business today.  Thoroughbreds have been racing at Keeneland in Lexington since 1936.  Keeneland President Bill Thomason said the safety of horse and rider is always on the minds of those involved in racing.

“We do care, and we got to show that we care and we got to take action.  We can’t talk about what we’ve been doing.  We have to talk about what we’re going to do.  That’s the conversation right now.  That’s the seriousness that I’m feeling from every single racing jurisdiction,” said Thomason.

In addition to working toward uniformity nationally in medication use and drug testing, much attention has focused on track conditions.  Keeneland moved back to the traditional dirt track in 2014, after eight years with a polytrack surface.  Thomason noted new dirt got put down this past summer.

“This year, as was scheduled, from when we installed it, we went through a major refurbishment of the track.  We added a thousand tons of new material to it. Under the direction and guidance of Mick Peterson we went down and re-examined the base with ground penetrating radar,” explained Thomason.

Peterson is working with two labs in Lexington on improving track condition procedures.  That includes examining dirt from the Santa Anita track where the vast majority of horse fatalities in the past year have taken place.  He said the focus is on consistent track testing.

The hope is “to provide as many tracks as possible with state of the art testing.  That would be testing before the race meet to make sure the surface is good and documentation and testing during the race meet to make sure that this maintenance is performed in the most consistent manner possible,” Peterson said. 

September brought the annual yearling sales to Keeneland.  One headline out of this year’s sale was a horse purchased for $8 million.   Richard Snyder of Versailles’ Cove Springs Farm says that helps demonstrate the horse racing business is going well.

He believes Justify’s positive test for a banned substance garnered too much attention. “Look at all the human athletes that using performance enhancing drugs.  So, there is a segment in the industry, I’m sure, that does.  But I don’t think it’s really widespread,” Snyder said.

Terri Robertson was at the Keenland yearling sale.  She says her husband and son race horses in Chicago, Minnesota, Arkansas, and New Orleans.  She says purses at some tracks are not near as strong as those found at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. “It’s tough for owners to want to come and pay this amount of money for a horse and then not have any purses to run for,” explained Robertson.

Robertson sayid expanded gambling is helping to boost purses at some tracks.  Lucy Dadayan is a senior research associate with the non-profit Urban Institute. She has studied pari-mutuel revenues coming to state governments. Dadayan noted that discretionary spending varies.

“You can spend it all on horse racing or you can spend it on cinema or traveling or other activities, so people have also diversified their spending activities,” Dadayan said. 

Racing officals are trying to balance equine health and safety with the financial part of the business. Mary Scollay worked for years with the Kentucky Racing Commission and is now the director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. Scollay said creating consistency in controlled therapeutic medications should be “an easy fix.” The equine veterinarian admits there is more nuance found in some substances that can have longer lasting effects. Scollay added concerns about horse racing outside the industry are significant.  She doesn’t ever see a return to what those in horse racing consider a public baseline of concern. “It is a different world than we lived in nine months ago.  It’s never going to go back to that.  And the minute we think that we’re going to, I think that, that is the beginning of our demise,” explained Scollay.

Scollay said federal legislation to bring uniformity to medication use and testing is worth exploring.  But she believes the devil is in the details and that will be difficult to achieve at all levels throughout the nation.

As local horse tracks focus on equine health and safety, Congress is now getting involved. Sixth District Congressman Andy Barr is championing the Horse Racing Integrity Act.  He argued there is true bi-partisanship when it comes to this piece of legislation.

“This is a bill that is supported by Tea Party republicans who strongly support and defend President Trump and we’re working with liberal democrats from New York and Illinois who support impeaching  the president.  And yet, we’ve come together because we love this sport or Thoroughbred racing and we want to reform it to address this crisis to make sure there is future for Thoroughbred racing in America.”

When Congress will take action on such a bill remains a question.  Barr said he anticipates a second Congressional hearing on the legislation either late this year or next year.  For now, many eyes will be watching horses race at Keeneland.  The fall racing meet began Friday and runs through the end of the month.

Mary Scollay, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium talks with WEKU'S Stu Johnson about federal horse racing legislation:  

Keeneland President Bill Thomason addressed priority racing reforms being proposed today:

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