US Racing: A huge dose of common sense wrapped up in 12 pages

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Justify led from start to finish to take out the Belmont Stakes and become racing's 13th Triple Crown winner at the weekend.
Justify led from start to finish to take out last year’s Belmont Stakes and become racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner. © Hugh Deucey

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.

One thought on “US Racing: A huge dose of common sense wrapped up in 12 pages

  • August 29, 2019 at 10:39 am
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    Missing from your article and the Jockey Guild’s document is time between meets. It USED TO BE that the meets did not flow seamlessly and the horses were allowed to take time off between meets. Not so anymore. However, that doesn’t seem to bother anyone but me. Secondly, historically speaking, the Industry has cleaned itself up tremendously over time. They used to actually PAINT horses in order to switch them. There was a time when that tattoo on the horse’s lip didn’t exist.

    Regarding the topic of Lasix, I disagree with the Jockey Guild and completely agree with Mr. Foreman of the Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association:
    “The current scientific and veterinary research supports the use of Lasix (furosemide) on race day under the current regulatory protocols as being in the best interests of the safety, health and welfare of the horse, and it would be irresponsible to deny our horses access to this medication during racing. There is no evidence that lasix compromises the horse or in any way contributes to breakdowns. The proposed reforms are political measures and are not health, safety and welfare based. Since your question is, are we “doing everything humanly to protect the health and welfare of horse”, the current regulatory practice and protocols fulfill that mandate and are clearly in furtherance of doing everything humanly possible we can do to protect the health, safety and welfare of the horse. ”

    Alan Foreman, Chairman and CEO, Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association:

    And finally, to put things into perspective, I submit, this: There were more than 47,000 overdose deaths that involved an opioid in 2017 (the latest full year of data). There were nearly 69,100 drug deaths in the 12-month period ending last November, down from almost 72,300 predicted deaths for 12 months ending November 2017. Distracted driving claimed about 3,166 lives on U.S. roadways in 2017, according to federal estimates. And, In 2018, the state of California reported around 3,651 motor-vehicle deaths, a slight increase from the year before. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association estimates that 6,227 pedestrians were killed in 2018 — a 4 percent hike from 2017 and 35 percent since 2008. Additionally, almost 129,000 pedestrians were treated in emergency departments for non-fatal crash-related injuries in 2015. Pedestrian deaths also have risen in New York State risen in New York, and pedestrian and cycling fatalities have increased in Los Angeles in the past several years. A global status report shows that road traffic injuries are now the single biggest cause of death for children and young adults, and that more than half of all traffic deaths are pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. In the United States, driver fatalities fell from 27,348 in 2006 to 23,611 in 2017, but pedestrian and cyclist fatalities increased from 5,567 to 6,760. Yet, there is a movement to actually close race tracks and destroy the thoroughbred horse racing industry. Btw, I have been called callous when I ask, what’s the difference between a pedestrian getting hit and a horse going down when it’s suggested that the horse has no choice or say in the matter. Well, neither does a pedestrian, but I don’t see a movement to shut down automobiles or the auto industry.

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