ROAP conference identifies importance of safety stewards

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: April 5, 2017

Delaware Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse’s comments were brief, but they summed up the purpose of the two-day Racing Officials Accreditation Program conference held on the grounds of Delaware Park April 3-4.

“If we want to have quality racing in our states, we need to make sure it’s fair, not just for the competitors but for those betting on the races as well,” said Scuse, who returned to Delaware after eight years as Deputy Secretary for the United States Department of Agriculture. “It’s important that we continue to learn, get educated, and make racing the very best it can possibly be.”

The spring ROAP conference serves as a platform to identify points of emphasis for stewards, judges and other racing officials each year. There also are regular discussions regarding communication within the racing industry and with the general public.

One of this year’s topics was a review of racetrack safety rules, procedures and standards involving management, officials and horsemen, and a call for tracks to establish track safety committees. Some jurisdictions or individual tracks have hired track safety stewards, a relatively new position that could eventually become part of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance code of standards.

An April 4 panel discussion among safety stewards provided insight into a job that, among other things, serves as a bridge between horsemen and racetrack management or regulatory agencies—and perhaps most importantly has the potential to foster integrity and improve equine health and welfare.

“They can be of great value if used properly,” said Hugh Gallagher, the New York Racing Association safety steward who chairs ROAP. “We’re going to make this position as meaningful for racing as we can.”

Gallagher said a typical day could include morning training, mobile and walking barn patrols, checking on horses in stalls, and safety reviews. He noted that during an inspection one day in March officials confiscated 17 expired therapeutic medications from trainers.

“We’ve also gotten familiar with the veterinarians,” Gallagher said. “It’s not an adversarial relationship. We’re there to help them out.”

Cynthia Smith, a state steward and safety steward in New Mexico who began as a hot walker and has a long list of other racing-related jobs on her resume, said she works closely with investigators as part of her duties. She also said developing a relationship with trainers is very important.

“We need to remember how hard these people work on the backside seven days a week,” Smith said. “It’s a great thing to bring to the table—that personal experience of having worked on the backside. Educating and working with horsemen is an important thing, because you’re strengthening your horsemen colony from the inside out.”

Smith said she attends horsemen’s meetings and also is a liaison with stewards and vets.

“It’s a very positive opportunity,” she said. “You’re also helping to protect the racing association or racing commission against legal issues, and that helps knowing where people are coming from, too.”

Reese Howard, the safety steward at Delaware Park, previously was involved in a similar position with the National Steeplechase Association. Howard said it has been a learning experience for all parties, but already there have been positive developments.

“When I first got here people had no idea why I was here (on the backstretch),” he said. “I was probably the most hated person at the racetrack—worse than an investigator. But I had meetings with the horsemen to explain the purpose (of a safety steward), and they learned they could come to me. We’ve made some nice changes here at Delaware Park.”

Howard said he had cited some horsemen for lack of equine care, and they in turn improved their operations.

Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, a veterinarian and former Director of Racing for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission who now serves as a steward, said the position of safety steward evolves as the industry evolves. One benefit is a return to one-on-one contact that has been sorely missing on the backstretch.

“We’ve had a siloing of expertise that has led to isolation and less interaction than in years past,” Durenberger said. “People need to be heard. If (a representative) of a commission or track is not around in the morning, we’ve done a really good service by having someone on the backstretch to acknowledge (horsemen and their employees).”

(THA photo of John Wayne, Hugh Gallagher, Jennifer Durenberger, Reese Howard and Cynthia Smith, left to right, at ROAP conference)