Is it possible that American racing interests have well and truly woken up to the fact that things will need to change if it wants to maintain a social license to operate?
Social licenses can be very hard to pin down, especially when we consider racing as a multibillion-dollar worldwide industry. It provides many tens of thousands of people with jobs and, in many jurisdictions, funnels cash into government coffers through a share of betting revenues.
But even enterprises as large as the global racing industry cannot assume a guaranteed future.
Many jurisdictions have seen a downturn in betting revenues and falling attendances on racedays. Part of the problem is increased competition for the gambling dollar, but racing faces another uncomfortable truth: the loss of racehorses.
It is in the US where this problem is felt most keenly at present. The loss of 30 Thoroughbreds at California’s Santa Anita Racetrack in one season garnered headlines around the world.
The public – and that includes the betting public – have no appetite for catastrophic breakdowns in racehorses.
The series of Santa Anita deaths has, I think, brought home the magnitude of this problem for the US racing industry. This is a problem that is not going to go away, unless the industry can stop public relations and horse welfare disasters such as this.
There are many positive initiatives within the industry, but it suffers from some mountainous shortcomings. First among them is the fractured nature of racing jurisdictions across the US, with drug rules that vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
In many jurisdictions, the rules on drug use are simply too permissive.
I could describe the litany of problems, but The Jockey Club in the US can do it far more eloquently than me.
If you’re ever of a mind to read a dozen pages that explain precisely what is wrong with the American racing industry and how to fix it, can I recommend the US Jockey Club’s racing white paper.
It oozes common sense from every page and lays out, in unemotional terms, a roadmap to a better future.
The paper describes how the current system does not work, with slow rule-making and inadequate out-of-competition testing. Even testing laboratories don’t necessarily operate to the same standard.
There is a lack of uniformity across jurisdictions, it says.
Rampant furosemide (Lasix) use, supposedly to reduce the risk of bleeding from the lungs, also comes in for attention. It points out that only a small proportion of horses are actually affected by bleeding in the airways – somewhat less than 10% – whereas approximately 95% of all racehorses are treated with the drug.
Furosemide is a powerful diuretic, which makes horses pass a significant amount of water. As the paper points out, lighter horses are faster horses. So, the majority of racehorses not affected by bleeding are enjoying a significant performance-enhancement boost.
In fact, horses receiving Lasix have been shown to run three to five lengths faster. Hardly a level playing field.
The paper lays out a series of reforms it argues are necessary, ranging from an independent central rule-making authority to transparency in medical treatments and drug testing. Its ongoing list broadly addresses safety, welfare, and integrity concerns.
It delivers what it calls “the bottom line”:
“The time has come for a new regulatory paradigm for horse racing in the United States. One that is based upon a renewed commitment to the horse and unyielding integrity in the system, from the breeding shed right through to retirement.”
It says the majority of those involved in horse racing know that the current system is not working and that it is time for meaningful change.
“More than ever, horse racing is under the microscope by animal welfare groups, the media, and the public. The racing industry must show that the health of its equine athletes is a paramount concern.”
The paper supports the passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019. Regardless of success in that regard, it presents a very considered case on where US racing needs to be headed.
Scrutiny of the industry is not going to go away. It needs to embrace change or racing may find its already-tattered social license turn to dust.