Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority says progress is being made in the sport

FILE - Javier Castellano, atop Mage, third from left, is seen with others behind the pack as they make the first turn while competing in the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 6, 2023, in Louisville, Ky. Horse racing groups are backing legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that they hope will replace the federal organization overseeing the sport for just a year. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)(AP/Julio Cortez)
Lisa Lazarus has gotten countless calls and messages from trainers across horse racing since new medication and anti-doping rules went into effect this spring, many of which she found inspiring.

“For the first time ever, they feel like they have a real chance that when they get up to the starting gate, that the playing field is really level and that they no longer have to kind of compete with other trainers’ pharmacies,” Lazarus said.

Groups critical of the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Authority, of which Lazarus serves as CEO, backed competing legislation introduced Tuesday in Congress that would repeal the law and replace it with a system that gives oversight power back to states. In the aftermath of that move, industry leaders are defending and praising HISA for making progress in improving the welfare of horses and the people around them.

“(HISA is) a law that is working to make the sport of thoroughbred racing safer and more transparent,” National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and CEO Tom Rooney said in response to the new bill. “The NTRA will continue to support the critical work of HISA.”

After being signed into law in 2020 and surviving several legal challenges, HISA launched last year to oversee racetrack safety across the U.S. Uniform national medication and anti-doping regulations went into place May 22, overseen by the Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit.

In the four months since, Lazarus and HIWU executive director Ben Mosier said 85 of the 141 medication-related cases made public have already been resolved. A HIWU spokesperson said 27 of the 85 resolutions involved the use of a banned substance.

“That is unheard of under the old system,” Lazarus said by phone Tuesday. “We actually have a program that has teeth and that is having an impact.”

Before the new rules went into place, each state could set its own rules. With HISA running the show, samples are collected, screened and measured the same, with the same organization reviewing and prosecuting cases and doling out punishment.

The transparency part comes from listing violations and rulings on a public website.

“That’s exceptional progress on a mission of uniformity,” Mosier said by phone Wednesday. “We’re seeing an industry not scared to reach out to us. It’s a sense of trust in a way, and our investigators are working very closely and acting on things very quickly. That’s going to prove in the long run why this is a beneficial program.”

From a horse safety standpoint, HISA is working with Amazon Web Services and Palantir to collect and analyze data, which could find more answers about the causes of horse injuries and deaths. Lazarus said Dr. Susan Stover, chair of the racetrack safety committee, has already analyzed information that found a correlation between the number of high-speed workouts a horse has had and the degree of risk for a musculoskeletal injury.

Coming off a spate of horse deaths at Churchill Downs during the spring and at Saratoga Race Course this summer, work is continuing to keep horses with potential red flags from even getting to the starting gate. Lazarus said post-entry/pre-race screening is able to identify 75% of horses who could potentially be at risk.

“To do that, it’s like five human hours a race card,” Lazarus said. “We’re working really hard with Palantir to come up with a software program that would reduce that to only about half an hour so we can really deploy it throughout the country.”

For an industry that has long been reluctant to change, Lazarus has noticed a big shift in horsemen and others recognizing HISA as the law of the land and them wanting to be part of forming policy and “part of the solution.”

Critics remain, though Mosier believes the process is working. He expects policies will be reviewed and adjusted by HISA, just like the World Anti-Doping Agency does on a regular basis, and for horse racing as a whole to continue to get up to speed with the rules.

“Do we have some challenges to overcome? Sure,” he said. “Probably the biggest challenge is just to continue to educate the industry on this system. … We started somewhere, and now they need to just continue to evolve.”


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