Jockey Club Round Table: Information Will Sharpen HISA’s Focus

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Stuart S. Janney III, chairman of the board at The Jockey Club, addressed the audience during the 2021 Round Table Conference.

When the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority begins its oversight of the sport’s medication and anti-doping rules, drug testing, and racetrack safety in July 2022, the independent organization will have access to a wealth of information from The Jockey Club.

The plan to share that information to assist HISA in its oversight was one of the highlights of the 69th edition of The Jockey Club Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing, which offered a virtual presentation the morning of Aug. 15. With HISA signed into law in December 2020, a large portion of Sunday’s conversation focused on implementation of the authority scheduled to launch July 1, 2022.

“We are at a crossroads because in December of 2020 the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was signed into law,” said The Jockey Club chairman Stuart Janney III during his opening remarks. “I thank so many of you for your crucial support in passing this legislation. And I commit to you that The Jockey Club will do all we can to ensure successful implementation.”

HISA will operate under the Federal Trade Commission and plans to hire the United States Anti-Doping Agency to enforce its rules, oversee laboratory testing, and handle violation matters. Janney and others didn’t have to look long to find reasons why HISA is needed.

Four days before this year’s Round Table, multiple Group/Grade 1-winning trainer Jorge Navarro entered a guilty plea to federal charges involving the use of performance-enhancing drugs in racehorses. He faces up to five years in prison. Navarro also admitted his actions cost others more than $25 million in purse money.

Navarro was one of more than two dozen people arrested in March 2020 on charges related to using and distributing performance-enhancing drugs in horse racing. Following those arrests, he joins a growing list of those convicted after an investigation revealed a widespread scheme by racehorse trainers, veterinarians, PED distributors, and others to manufacture, distribute, and receive adulterated and misbranded PEDs and to secretly administer those PEDs to horses competing at all levels of horse racing.

The indictments also included multiple grade 1-winning trainer Jason Servis. While Navarro admitted in federal court to charges related to doping horses and Servis is accused of similar charges, state regulators did not discover the behavior. While state regulators suspended both after the federal indictments, neither was ever suspended (based on available regulatory records) for a drug violation in the 10 years before those indictments.

While those cases continue to move forward in the courts – and Janney noted Sunday that he expects further indictments to follow – the outcome of the sport’s biggest race is still up in the air following Medina Spirit ‘s failed drug test. Medina Spirit reached the wire first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve but a post-race drug test came up positive for betamethasone, a corticosteroid that is illegal on race day. A stewards’ hearing has not yet been conducted as the case has landed in court. Medina Spirit is trained by Bob Baffert, who since May 2, 2020, already has been sanctioned four times following failed post-race tests.

“The very unfortunate events surrounding the Derby illustrate how inadequate the existing system is,” Janney said. “We saw how the crazy patchwork of different regulatory regimes only confuse the general public and dismay our strongest supporters. We will not survive if the public does not have confidence in our integrity, and in our dedication to the welfare and safety of our athletes.”

Sunday’s discussion included a presentation from Tessa Muir, the former anti-doping manager at the British Horseracing Authority who joined USADA in March to assist with the implementation of HISA, and HISA chairman Charlie Scheeler. They noted that information collected from The Jockey Club and other trusted sources will help sharpen the effectiveness of testing and investigations as the sport aims to rid PED’s and ensure everyone follows the same medication standards – many of which have been tightened in recent years to improve equine safety.

“I assure you that we have no intention of reinventing any wheels, but data will be key to this enterprise,” Scheeler said. “We’ll have the right to obtain appropriate data from all covered persons as time goes on. This data will make us better. We will make more informed decisions about who to test, when to test, and how to test.

“We will make more informed decisions about which horses to focus on more than others in the pre-race veterinary examinations and which trainers and tracks have troubling records. We have to work with them to improve their records and bring them into compliance.”

For HISA, The Jockey Club plans to provide information from its Equine Injury Database, which includes more than a decade of information and more than 5 million race starts; the pre-race exam module, the electronic treatment records database, and the new exceptional performance tool, which is designed to identify significant performance changes in horses that might merit closer examination by tracks or regulators.

Jim Gagliano

Jim Gagliano, president and COO of The Jockey Club, said while the breed registry will be mindful of privacy and confidentiality obligations, such information will assist HISA’s oversight.

“All of this data will create the first-ever comprehensive database to best inform HISA with facts as it develops and enforces rules and standards that will improve the integrity of the sport and make it a lot safer,” Gagliano said. “In short, under HISA, the amalgamation of these databases will truly be transformative for the sport and will be keys to ensuring the sustainability and growth of Thoroughbred racing.”

Muir noted that informed, effective oversight of a sport can bring about real change in participants’ attitudes. She believes HISA and USADA can work together to bring about such a reality in horse racing.

“Prevention and deterrence are equally, if not more important, components to a clean sport, and something USADA already works hard at instilling in its human sports programs,” Muir said. “The hard work is already underway to turn the vision which saw HISA passed at the end of 2020 into a reality in 2022.

“Playing our part in the jigsaw puzzle, USADA is working alongside your Authority to develop and hopefully ultimately implement an adequate anti doping and medication control program with robust rules and regulations, which will bring harmonization and consistency for U.S. racing.”

Scheeler provided a timetable on plans to move forward with implementation. He said HISA plans by this fall to have programs ready for draft review by the industry on anti-doping policies, medication rules, and safety policies. He said those proposals will be shared with the industry and the public at that time.

He said after hearing reaction to the proposals, HISA plans to make any needed updates and submit the rules to the FTC before year’s end. The FTC will then conduct a 60-day period for comments, which Scheeler called a second opportunity for the industry to weigh in.

“We hope that they approve all the rules that we submit to them,” Scheeler said. “Then they have to be posted and finalized for a four-month period of time – so no later than March 1, 2022, for these rules to become operative on day one—July 2022.”

As for costs, Scheeler said that there will be increases. HISA plans to update states on those anticipated costs in the fall and winter. He said such information is required by April 1, 2022, but it is HISA’s goal to get that information to the states months ahead of that deadline. He said the added costs are needed to put an effective system in place.

“This program is going to cost money. And it’s going to cost more money than the industry has traditionally allocated for services such as these,” Scheeler said. “If you look at the industry today, ‘status quo’ is not an option. These program costs should not be looked at as expenses. They should be looked at as investments in strengthening the industry and ensuring its future. It costs money to ensure that the rules are fairly and evenly and effectively applied.”

Scheeler, who served as lead counsel to former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell in connection with his independent investigation of performance-enhancing substance use in Major League Baseball, noted that it will be a challenge to have HISA up and running by July 1 but he’s confident it will happen.

“It’s going to be a heavy lift – essentially 13 1/2 months from the middle of May when we had our first board meeting – to create from nothing an entire nationwide regulatory system,” Scheeler said. “But we can do it if the entire industry unites behind this effort.”

At this point the industry is not fully united. The Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and several states – Louisiana, Oklahoma, and West Virginia – have filed litigation challenging the constitutionality of HISA. Janney commented on why he thought HISA would hold up to such court scrutiny and promised that it would soon shape a new reality in the sport.

“To those who opposed HISA, you should know that racing will never be what it was in the past,” Janney said. “There is no going back.”

David O’Rourke

Also addressing a new reality during Sunday’s Round Table was New York Racing Association president and CEO David O’Rourke, who noted the need for racing to take full advantage of the expansion of sports wagering, which from a standing start has grown to $30 billion in handle in three years. He said that while racing’s advance-deposit wagering platforms have been a great product for the core audience, they figure to be at a disadvantage in offering just horse racing at a time when other platforms offer every other sport.

O’Rourke sees an opportunity for racing to take advantage of the changing landscape, with racing side by side with other events on the sports wagering platforms.

“Sports book operators are in growth and acquisition mode and are signing up millions of customers with marketing budgets we should all envy,” O’Rourke said. “Fortunately, here lies our opportunity. The situation has the potential of a perfect storm. Our content is back on national television and at a larger scale than ever before.

“Sports books are spending millions of dollars every month to sign up general sports fans. It seems obvious that our industry should want our wagering content on these platforms – even capturing a single-digit market share of the most modest projection of the sports-betting market would break us out of our sideways pattern.”

He noted the success Australia has enjoyed with fixed-odds wagering. He added that fixed-odds wagering on bets like win, place, and show alongside pari-mutuel wagers into exotic pools could prove attractive in the U.S. He credited New Jersey as a first-mover in sports wagering and with its recently approved regulation allowing fixed-odds wagering. He said it should prove an attractive test market.

“Fixed odds on simpler wagers alongside pari-mutuel exotics is a potential winning combination – offering the new player a familiar entry point, while maintaining deep exotic pools for our more experienced players,” O’Rourke said. “There are a lot of risks, challenges, hesitations, and hurdles to realize a market wear fixed-odds and exotic offerings come together, but we here at NYRA believe the rollout of sports betting is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. With our industry partners, we’re moving forward to do everything we can to seize that opportunity. The returns to the industry could be enormous.”

Additional Presentations

Emily Lyman

Emily Lyman, founder and CEO of Branch & Bramble, a digital marketing agency used by America’s Best Racing, discussed how “social listening” online can be used to gauge public sentiment of horse racing and how highly publicized events can have a positive or negative impact on how the sport is viewed. She talked about how ABR’s marketing strategy is influenced by this data and that influencers can be effectively used as brand ambassadors to introduce new audiences to horse racing.

“Maintaining the status quo doesn’t protect a brand’s long-term health,” Lyman said. “Without growth in impressions and public sentiment, your key audience will eventually die out.”

Will Duff Gordon, CEO of Total Performance Data, spoke in a presentation with Will Bradley, director and founder of Gmax Technology, on creating timing systems for horse races and how they are working with Equibase to determine how the tracking data can supplement and enhance information Equibase provides. They noted that this information will become more valuable with the expansion of sports betting in the U.S.

“We do know from our European experience that sports that have the richest set of data, as well as pictures, as well as odds, capture the most betting turnover and handle,” Gordon said.

Dr. Yuval Neria, professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University and director of the PTSD Research Center, was joined by Dr. Prudence Fisher, associate professor of Clinical Psychiatric Social Work at Columbia University, to talk about the Man O’ War Project, which was founded by Ambassador Earle I. Mack. It is the first university-led research study to examine the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy in treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Neria described the findings as “extremely encouraging,” noting measurable changes in the parts of the brain involved in the capacity to seek and experience pleasure among trial participants. There were also decreases in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Moving forward, plans call for the creation of the Man O’ War Center, with goals to train others in EAT protocol for veterans, adopt the protocol for other groups, pursue a larger research study, and expand the use of former racehorses for equine-assisted therapy work.

“We are proud to partner with the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance to connect groups trained in the Man O’ War protocol with accredited aftercare facilities,” said Fisher. “It’s a great way to incorporate more retired Thoroughbreds in EAT programs throughout the country.”

Kristin Werner, senior counsel for The Jockey Club and administrator of The Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Incentive Program, moderated an aftercare panel with panelists Erin Crady, executive director, Thoroughbred Charities of America; Brian Sanfratello, executive secretary, Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association (PHBA); Beverly Strauss, executive director, MidAtlantic Horse Rescue; and Emily Weiss, vice president, Equine Welfare, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Each panelist shared his or her perspective on challenges in the aftercare landscape, from securing a safe first exit from the racetrack to placing retired breeding stock. Crady talked about the TCA’s Horses First Fund, which helps Thoroughbreds in case of an emergency.

“Plan, plan, and plan some more,” Crady said. If you’ve prepared a business plan for your racing operation, include a section on aftercare.

“Please remember one thing that I feel is paramount to your horse’s future. Make every effort to retire your horse while he or she is still sound. A sound Thoroughbred can have an unlimited future.”

Strauss talked about the kill buyer market and the frequent social media frenzies when Thoroughbreds are offered for inflated prices to save them from being sold to slaughter. She warned that individuals and organizations that participate in these practices are often scams.

“If you’re contacted because one of your former horses is in a kill pen, do some research, don’t just throw money at it, don’t just send money blindly; do research and see that the horse truly is in a bad place and then ensure its safety,” Strauss said.

Sanfratello detailed the PHBA’s stance on aftercare and its creation of a code of ethics that will sanction those who knowingly send horses registered with the PHBA to slaughter.

Weiss focused on the work of the ASPCA’s Right Horse Initiative, which assists with placing horses in transition.

In his closing remarks, Janney announced that Len Coleman and Dr. Nancy Cox, co-chairs of the nominating committee of HISA, have been awarded The Jockey Club Medal for exceptional contributions to the Thoroughbred industry.

A video replay of the conference is available below, and full transcripts will be available on this week.

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