Louisville, Q. ( Associated Press) — Horse racing is once again under intense scrutiny, with the 148th Kentucky Derby coming up on Saturday with its highest interest among the general public.
The industry has been rocked by scandal in recent years, including the disqualification of last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, a horse-doping conspiracy. Involving trainers and veterinarians, and the punishment of its highest-profile trainer.
The sport’s inability to police itself attracted the attention of the federal government in 2020. The result is the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. It is going to come into effect from 1st July.
The act will be implemented in phases, with the racetrack safety program beginning immediately. Antidoping and drug regulations are not expected to start until early 2023, leaving the charge to the states for now.
“We have to do it,” said Tom Rooney, the new president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. “We have to have the same standards in every jurisdiction.”
Unlike the central offices that control the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, 38 US racing states operate under patchwork rules that vary from track to track. Horses, owners, trainers and jockeys frequently move between states to compete. Locals respect penalties given elsewhere, but discrepancies can create confusion and make it possible for the system to run.
Serving a 90-day suspension imposed by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert Kentucky racing officials who will keep him out of the Derby on Saturday, a race he has won six times. The punishment came after 2021 Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a post-race drug test. The colt was later disqualified.
East Coast trainer Jorge Navarro is serving a five-year prison sentence for his role in a horse doping conspiracy. He was also fined $25.8 million.
Trainer Jason Service is set for hearing next year under the same case. He has declared his innocence. Service coached 2019 Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security, who was disqualified for interference during the race.
Navarro and Service were among more than two dozen people charged after a lengthy FBI investigation.
Despite such a hit to the game’s reputation, there is growing panic in the industry at the prospect of sweeping changes brought about by HISA.
The program has already been challenged in the courts, with two lawsuits seeking to kill it.
In late March, a lawsuit filed by the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and a group of its affiliates questioned the constitutionality of HISA. It was rejected by a federal judge in Texas and is being appealed.
The second lawsuit filed in Kentucky by the state of Oklahoma and eight other states is similar to the NHBPA’s lawsuit. It is yet to be heard.
Whether the implementation of HISSA is a response to placating outspoken critics or representative of meaningful change is an ongoing debate within the industry.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lucas said, “As trainers, we have mixed feelings because we’re going to make decisions that aren’t very educated in our sport.” “It’s hard to say where they’re going.”
Rooney, a former Republican congressman from Florida, believes it’s important to train with a fresh take on the game.
“Having a large group of people who are not horse people, as long as they are not out to harm the industry, is a positive,” he said. “They have agreed to sign this board to help make horse racing a success.”
Steve Asmussen, North America’s Most Winning Trainer, comes from a family-run horse training campaign in Laredo, Texas.
“I worry that all the decisions are being made by people who have other forms of income and will eliminate people like my family, where the lower rungs were all income,” he said. “I think it will be very negative for the game going forward.”
Trainer Tim Yakatin is based in California, where some strict rules involving drugs, drug testing and veterinary exams were enforced after dozens of horses died in Santa Anita in 2019.
“Whatever is coming our way, I accept it because I think it will create unity among our industry. It should benefit us because we have become too fragmented,” Yakatin said. Said, who has two horses in the Kentucky Derby. “I am hoping that the unity we are starting with will carry over into other aspects of our industry that can be capitalized on.”
HISA is moving quickly towards the starting gate as the July deadline approaches.
Lisa Lazarus began her job as CEO of Hisa’s board of directors in mid-February. It completed its first major task this week: hiring an independent enforcement agency to oversee anti-doping and drug regulations.
After negotiations with the US Anti-Doping Agency failed, HISA chose Drug Free Sport International, a Missouri company that works with the NFL, NBA, MLB and NASCAR, among other leagues. The company will set up an integrity and wellness unit under the supervision of a five-member advisory council headed by Jonathan Taylor, a London-based lawyer with experience in antidoping in international sports.
Lazarus said his goal is to conduct transparent investigations and speedy resolution of disputes.
California, Kentucky and Minnesota are the first states that have agreed to work with HISA by paying their share of the cost.
“We are close to reaching agreement with the vast majority of the racing commissions,” said Lazarus. “We are learning as we move forward, but we have made a lot of progress.”
A cleaner and better game can increase the popularity of horse racing among the younger generation and help capitalize on the online sports betting gold rush.
“Maybe we can build up our fanbase,” Yakatin said.
HISA may have the biggest impact in leveling the playing field.
“We need to show the world that we are doing everything we can to protect the integrity of athletes, jockeys and the sport,” Rooney said.
Associated Press Sports writer Gary B. Graves contributed to this report.
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