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Horse Racing

Maryland horsemen express anxieties over sweeping federal regulations set to take effect Friday

After decades of debate and calls for reform, the thoroughbred racing industry will be governed by uniform federal regulations starting Friday, a prospect that has inspired widespread worry among Maryland horsemen, who say the rules have been rushed into place and are full of logical inconsistencies.

The state’s trainers and owners generally support consistent nationwide regulations, with prominent industry figures saying the effort is overdue and likely to improve public perceptions of racing. But the devil is in the details, they warn, and the start of the process is likely to be bumpy.

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“Probably 90% of it is OK. But what horsemen are concerned about is the implementation and the rush to get it in place with many, many questions still out there,” longtime owner and trainer Linda Gaudet, who is vice president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said last week. “The favorite answer is, ‘I’ll get back to you on that.’ Well, we have a week.”

Under the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA), created by Congress in December 2020, new rules governing everything from veterinary treatments to track staffing to the use of riding crops, go into place Friday. Penalties in some cases could be stiff, with the loss of a winning purse possible, for instance, for violations of the riding crop rule (no more than six strikes to the horse’s hindquarters per race).

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New rules governing medications will follow Jan. 1.

A few states are fighting HISA, with Texas officials, for example, saying they won’t let their races be shown in other states for simulcast or pari-mutuel wagering rather than comply. Two groups representing horsemen have filed lawsuits challenging its constitutionality.

In Maryland, industry officials have sought to ease horsemen’s fears, saying the state is ahead of the game in implementing most rules.

“There will be very, very little that changes on July 1,” said Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, an appointed panel currently responsible for enforcing state racing regulations. “There’s tremendous apprehension among the horsemen, and I understand that. … But 95% of this stuff we’re doing already.”

Hopkins said the racing commission will coordinate with HISA to enforce the new rules, but that once the federal drug standards go into effect next year, the state commission will no longer rule on medication violations. That will probably be the greatest change horsemen face in the long run, he said.

HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said the state racing commission “will still regulate the majority of what takes place at the racetracks” and that Maryland’s stewards and regulatory veterinarians will be the point people enforcing HISA rules.

A separate HISA accreditation team will monitor racetracks to make sure they’re working toward complying with the federal rules, which will govern everything from veterinary and safety staffing to jockey health to the condition of racing surfaces. Lazarus described the racetrack accreditation component as a “work in progress” with rules that “don’t have a hard start on July 1.”

Assurances from Hopkins and Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, have not stopped some trainers from fretting that federal authorities will be empowered to raid their barns and even their homes in search of violations. They’re self-described individualists who aren’t used to federal rules governing every aspect of their work.

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Lazarus tried to allay such fears at a meeting this month with Maryland horsemen, saying her agency has “no intention of exercising that power at all.”

Lazarus told The Baltimore Sun that HISA officials have opted to narrow their search-and-seizure powers to use them only in investigations of alleged abuse or doping violations, with that modified language under review by the Federal Trade Commission.

“Our intention is to make the sport better and to do good things,” she said. “It’s not to hurt the horsemen.”

Dale Capuano, a successful veteran trainer based at Laurel Park, has been reluctant to register himself and his horses with the federal authority because of how the standards were proposed in what he considered to be an ultimatum to tracks and horsemen.

“Maybe it’s not intended that way, so you might be all right, but clarify it. The whole thing is basically a debacle to me at this point. …,” he said. “We all want the same things — uniform medication rules, safety for the horses and we want the cheaters out.”

In the case of new medication rules, horsemen feel they “have to sign up now, not knowing what we’re signing up for in January,” as Gaudet put it. If they don’t register, they won’t be allowed to run.

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Beyond worries about aggressive enforcement, trainers and owners say it’s difficult to get clear answers when they raise questions about the myriad rules, some of which will prohibit long-standing practices.

For example, they no longer will be allowed to treat chronic injuries with “freeze firing,” a method of applying intense cold to a small area of the horse’s body to hasten healing. Why target a widely used therapeutic practice, they wonder, when there’s no language to prohibit trainers from greater sins, such as overworking horses?

They also wonder why HISA mandated the use of one type of shoe for all four feet on every horse in America.

“Some of the things they are implementing aren’t realistic,” Gaudet said. “I look at the advisers … they have people that are outside the industry looking at this, and they don’t know.”

Foreman, however, said it’s essential to create a comprehensive package of safety rules because that puts the industry in a better position to answer lawmakers and animal welfare activists who wanted racing shut down after 30 horses died in a six-month stretch in 2018 and 2019 at California’s Santa Anita Park.

“It’s what got the bill passed,” said Foreman, noting that existing rules in Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic were the basis for much of HISA’s safety program. “These horses weren’t dying on the track at Santa Anita because of drugs and medication. It was because of health, safety and welfare practices, racetrack surface issues, racing office issues. You could go down the list. ... To me, this was the best part of what they did to what started out as anti-doping bill.”

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Even some of the most vocal supporters of federal regulation share similar concerns with critics of HISA.

“When you get people involved who don’t really know the sport, that’s a worry,” said trainer Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby from his base at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton. “There’s going to be growing pains, no doubt about it.”

However, he believes those hiccups are a reasonable price to pay as racing tries to create a fairer, safer playing field and clean up its reputation with fans and bettors tired of doping scandals and catastrophic fatal breakdowns.

Legislation to create federal oversight for the industry reached the finish line after seven years of attempts to create a workable bill. Horsemen and industry leaders had long decried safety and medication rules that varied from state to state, and the effort gained momentum the deaths at Santa Anita. Industry leaders argued that clusters of such breakdowns and doping scandals, like the one that led to federal indictments in 2020 for successful trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro, eroded public confidence in the sport.

Advocates for federal regulation do not argue that it will be a cure-all, and negative headlines have not stopped in the 18 months since HISA was created. The sport’s most prominent trainer, Bob Baffert, lost a Kentucky Derby victory and was suspended from this year’s Triple Crown series because of medication violations. In Maryland, track officials at Laurel Park temporarily suspended racing last winter after eight horses suffered fatal fractures in October and November.

But Maryland native Stuart Janney III, chairman of the racing advocacy group The Jockey Club, called HISA “this industry’s best ever opportunity to right our badly listing ship.”

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Motion said the industry demonstrated “ineptitude at governing ourselves for so long. We’ve gotten into such a bad position that it has taken the federal government to get involved in our sport to have some oversight. I think that’s our own fault.”

Horsemen gave Lazarus, the HISA CEO, credit for responding to questions in forums and via email. But they said her answers are not always complete.

“A lot of the questions I’ve received, the majority of them, relate to the anti-doping medication control program, and that doesn’t take effect until January,” she responded. “Those rules are up for comment, are still being debated, are still being discussed. So, some of the questions that relate to what’s going to happen in January are just not answerable at this time.”

Lazarus noted that HISA officials have responded to concerns raised by horsemen, including delaying the implementation of shoeing requirements until Aug. 1 and amending language on “pin firing” or “freeze firing” prohibitions so they apply only to treatment of a horse’s shins and only to horses foaled in 2022 or later.

She’s optimistic that once HISA regulations go into effect, horsemen will understand they are not as onerous or invasive as many fear.

“My challenge is to build that trust,” she said. “Where we land is going to be about what’s best for the sport, what’s best for the horses and the people who ride them. It’s not going to be trying to hurt anyone or charge people with violations. That’s absolutely not the goal.”


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