Horses

Safer horse racing? Texas stands in the way

Safer horse racing?  Texas stands in the way

It’s horse racing season again. It’s time for bugle calls, cheering crowds and photo finishers. Sadly, it’s also time to wonder if any of these thoroughbreds coming down the stretch have been doped illegally, or if they’ll survive many more laps. Thankfully, those worries may soon fade away as a new federal law aimed at cleaning up a sport tainted by allegations of misconduct and abuse will take effect nationwide on July 1.

As Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie celebrates its 25th anniversary, we support this legislation, which treats horses and jockeys like the interstate athletes they are. If only Texas racing officials had the same sentiment, we could make faster progress in protecting the health and safety of racehorses.

The bipartisan Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act was passed by Congress in December 2020 to create a regulatory authority overseeing thoroughbred simulcast racing. Its goal is to establish uniform safety standards from coast to coast. The new Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority is funded by the 25 state racing programs it regulates after assessing fees based on the size of each state’s operations.

HISA’s racetrack safety regulations go into effect July 1; its anti-doping and drug control regulations come into effect in January. Drug testing and enforcement will be overseen by Drug Free Sport International, the same group that partners with the National Football League, National Basketball Association, PGA Tour, Major League Baseball and others. major sports leagues.

HISA supporters say uniform federal regulations are needed because state-by-state rules are confusing to trainers, dangerous to horses and unfair to bettors looking to fairly evaluate athletes. We agree that everyone should abide by the new rules, especially in light of reports in recent years of horses failing doping tests, and collapsing and dying after races or practice due to overexertion or bad track conditions.

Federal prosecutors in New York and elsewhere have been investigating numerous allegations of illegal performance-enhancing drug use for years. And last year, famed trainer Bob Baffert was kicked out of Churchill Downs after one of his horses, Medina Spirit, tested positive for a banned substance just after winning the Kentucky Derby. (That horse, stripped of his title, died after a training session in December.) HISA supporters include many animal welfare groups, thoroughbred breeding organizations, jockey groups and various state racing commissions across the country.

But many other state racing commissions have serious concerns about HISA. Loudest of all critics has been our own Texas Racing Commission, which regulates both Lone Star Park and Sam Houston Race Park in Houston. The TRC tells us that, first and foremost, it fundamentally opposes federal intrusion into what it considers a matter of state, and it has joined in a lawsuit claiming that HISA is unconstitutional. A federal judge in Lubbock dismissed the case last month, but the TRC says it will appeal.

Second, the commission accuses HISA of poor communication, a lack of transparency about its budget and its rush to enforce its regulations. TRC executive director Amy Cook has sent several angry letters in recent days to HISA chief executive Lisa Lazarus refusing to pay the authority’s $371,377 assessment, reiterating her complaints and warning that authority hinders pari-mutuel horse racing in Texas.

For her part, Lazarus tells us she’s been candid with states about the authority’s intentions, been clear about how she arrived at her financial assessments, and welcomes ongoing discussions with Cook and other state commissioners. Implementation will happen gradually, she says, as all stakeholders slowly integrate together into the new system.

This current friction between state racing officials and HISA is a shame. With a 2019 Texas law that uses sales tax proceeds from horse-related products to fatten purses, the future looks bright for horse racing in Texas. And that future looks even brighter now that the safety and integrity of sport can also be significantly improved. We acknowledge the concerns of the TRC and find that with the widespread changes brought about by HISA, growing pains are inevitable.

We hope that the TRC and HISA will work more collaboratively in the weeks and months to come to ensure a smoother transition to a new federal regulatory system that will benefit everyone, especially horses.