I’ll leave the punchlines for others. A year ago, Donald Trump, who at the time was President of the United States, signed legislation that was the most significant step ever to reform horse racing with its numerous failings. A year later that law may have hit a major roadblock, and Trump had nothing to do with it.
Last week, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) “suspended” their negotiations to have USADA become the independent enforcement body to implement the federal law (also known as HISA) mandating a national medication control program.
Just two weeks after the shocking news that Medina Spirit suddenly died following a workout at Santa Anita — with the attendant coverage on yet another existential threat to horse racing — we faced an event that has the potential to become even more devastating. For the many in the racing community who have advocated a dramatic overhaul to racing’s inconsistent, if not mostly meaningless, anti-doping regime, the announcement that USADA was not only named in the federal law, but was willing to take on the role, came as that rare ray of hope.
USADA is the gold standard for identifying and policing medication violations. It is the agency that brought down Lance Armstrong and cleaned up world-class cycling, the sport that may well have been the most notorious sport in the world for drug violations. It even cleaned up the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Horse racing, of course, presents a much more complicated environment than either of those given that in this country there are three dozen separate jurisdictions and thousands of participants.
I am not the only person who fears that the failure of HISA to reform significantly racing means that its demise is inevitable. That is why it is absolutely essential that both USADA and HISA publicly state the reasons for the breakdown in their negotiations.
I realize that negotiations on any matter are traditionally conducted with a veil of confidentially — and there are good reasons for that. In most disputes, the parties have bargaining positions that may involve proprietary information that could harm a competitive advantage. Or the issues are such that disclosure of bargaining positions could harm their public image.
But the negotiations involving the future of racing — and that is what we are talking about — are not typical. For one reason, neither USADA nor the HISA board have an actual interest in the outcome. USADA is valuable because they are independent. The majority of the HISA board are barred by the conflict-of-interest provisions of the HISA law from having an interest in any aspect of racing — and that is one of the strong points of the legislation.
But I am a person who does have an actual interest in the negotiations by virtue of the statute including me as a “covered person.” Me and the thousands of others who are “covered persons” by virtue of being a trainer, owner, breeder, jockey, racetrack, veterinarian or a person licensed by a state racing commission. We are not taking part in the negotiations even though they will have a direct and substantial impact on our participation in the sport.
And there are other parties that may not have a financial interest, but nonetheless have a considerable stake in the outcome of these talks. There are fans of racing — both current and those who could become fans if they think the sport is clean. And, of course, there are the horses, whose well-being is literally at stake.
The USADA statement announcing the suspension of negotiations contains language that is ominous in its import for the anti-doping program:
“…we have been unable to enter an agreement in line with the requirements of the Act, and one which would have given us a reasonable chance to put in place a credible and effective program…. we desperately tried to reach an agreement to implement the program, without compromising our values….”
(Emphasis is mine.)
USADA’s cautionary language strongly suggests that the breakdown in negotiations could be the result of differences that would completely undermine the integrity and public confidence in a resultant program. While a strong anti-doping program is absolutely essential, so too is the transparency that has been sorely lacking throughout the many jurisdictions now controlling racing. The HISA board and USADA owe those interested in racing a complete and thorough explanation that has been lacking in the 13 days since the announcement that negotiations had been suspended.