When the rash of horse fatalities at Santa Anita in the first months of this year led the track’s owner to announce revolutionary steps to improve both safety and the perception of racing, many hoped this would break the logjam of opposition to any meaningful change in the racing industry. But as New York’s racing regulatory body demonstrated this week, don’t look for them to take a leadership role.
Twenty-three horses died while racing or training during the first three months of the Santa Anita winter meet. While it has yet to be determined what caused the fatalities, Belinda Stronach, head of The Stronach Group that owns and runs the track, announced sweeping reforms that have upended the national discussion on equine safety. (Although we often use the phrase “equine safety,” we should never lose sight of the fact that when a horse goes down, there is a human on its back who can also suffer a devastating injury.)
The most controversial of her proposed changes are restrictions on the use of the whip, and a ban on Lasix, the diuretic medication that is permitted in all states and is the only drug that can be administered legally on race day. While many people in the “outside” world are either sickened or surprised to learn that both whips and drugs are commonplace in racing, racing’s insiders will not be surprised to learn that on Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby days – two of the sport’s premier events – a grand total of three horses in the 27 races will not be on Lasix.
New York, along with Kentucky and California, is one of the country’s premier racing jurisdictions. Whether it would join the ranks of those realizing that the sport needed a massive overhaul of its perception among the general public, or side with the entrenched interests seeking to obstruct meaningful change, its Gaming Commission meeting on Monday answered, “we’re sticking with the status quo.”
The Commission’s Executive Director ran through a comparison of proposals by The Stronach Group with the situation in New York. Where TSG called for an increased program of Out-of-Competition Testing, the New York response was, essentially, “we do that also.” As I have documented in the past, New York’s program is so anemic that in two periods covering several years, it never identified a thoroughbred testing positive for a prohibited substance.
In what is one of the most significant proposals from California, TSG is proposing complete transparency on veterinary records, including the transfer of records to a new barn. New York responded with its policy in which one type of treatment is sent to a barn claiming a horse. While this has not received the attention I think it deserves, the overuse of legal medications is potentially a major scandal, and one that transparency of vet records would uncover.
Use of the whip? The Gaming Commission has previously talked about it and is “still studying” possible changes.
The Commission is also going to study its position on race-day Lasix. The New York Racing Association that conduct racing at the state’s major thoroughbred tracks has signed on with a coalition that is proposing a significantly watered-down version of TSG’s outright ban (albeit one that will be implemented gradually). The Coalition is proposing no Lasix in two-year-old races or in higher level stakes races. For the vast majority of races, there would be no change.
The Coalition proposal is half-baked. If the reason for permitting Lasix is a concern for equine safety, why would it not be permitted for the more valuable horses – the stakes horses and two-year-olds? But I doubt the Commission will ever get to approving the change. The state’s Equine Medical Director, Scott Palmer, DVM, has already thrown cold water on the proposal, and this is a Commission that meekly follows Palmer’s advice.
New York’s Gaming Commission may actually be the best advertisement for the importance of having a national body overseeing medication rules and discipline for violations. I do not think a single member of the Commission knows anything about horse racing. That is not hyperbole; I mean it literally.
My opinion is based on years of observing their meetings. They almost never discuss anything. They operate in secrecy. The total “conversation” comparing California’s proposed changes with New York took all of four minutes (and there was not a single comment). The Lasix conversation lasted five minutes. By contrast, California’s Horse Racing Board is comprised of knowledgeable individuals who engage in robust discussions. They even allow members of the public – you know, taxpayers – to participate.
The simple reality is that the Gaming Commission is not going to be a factor in any national conversation. The leading figure in New York on reforms to racing is Congressman Paul Tonko, co-author of the Horseracing Integrity Act 0f 2019. The leadership of the horse racing community has yet to produce its own voice in favor of reform. It is an embarrassing indictment on the lack of leadership in this state.