Thoroughbred Safety Coalition launched, seeks to push reforms

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Nov. 20, 2019

A group of racing organizations that account for 85% of graded stakes in the United States on Nov. 19 officially launched the Thoroughbred Safety Committee, which it said is designed to develop reforms to ensure the safety of racehorses and riders.

During a press conference at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., members of the coalition said they will focus on safety, medication, operational and integrity guidelines as well as increase transparency and accountability. The founding members include Breeders’ Cup, Churchill Downs Inc., Keeneland Association, the New York Racing Association Inc, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and The Stronach Group.

The racetrack members of the coalition in April announced, along with five other tracks that were not announced as part of the coalition at this time, a plan to ban the use of race-day Lasix in 2-year-old races beginning in 2020 and in all stakes in 2021. The group at the time said it would work with horsemen’s associations and regulatory agencies on the phase-out plan; Lasix, which is used to treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, wasn’t mentioned at the Nov. 19 press conference.

“We are passionate about these animals and this sport, and we are committed to working with our partners to ensure that together we are making sound and responsible decisions on behalf of our athletes, our fans and the racing community,” said Kevin Flanery, President of Churchill Downs racetrack. “Many of us have taken concrete action at our own tracks and are individually working with regulators and lawmakers in our states to enhance safety protocols. The Thoroughbred Safety Coalition will help drive these needed reforms across the nation.”

Many of the reforms discussed at the press conference are part of the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities—it was formulated in March and released soon after—or are action items for model rules when the Association of Racing Commissioners International meets in December. California, New York, Maryland and other states already have some of the regulations on the books or are in the process of approving them.

Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities

Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan Best Practices

Dr. Kathleen Anderson, a Mid-Atlantic region veterinarian and past president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, noted the AAEP’s 10-point reform plan released several years ago and also credited Mid-Atlantic region stakeholders for continually taking action on various reforms. She also said “education and research will earn dividends in a safety-centric culture.”

Among the reforms offered by the coalition are allowing for claims to be voided; transfer of medical records when a horse changes ownership; mandatory daily reporting by private veterinarians to state racing officials; expanded out-of-competition testing; mandatory necropsies; a uniform rule governing use of the riding crop; extending the administration time of all non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to 48 hours from 24 hours; a prohibition on “stacking”—use of more than one NSAID; banning off-label use of bisphosphonates; and prohibiting corticosteroid injections within 14 days of a race.

“It’s important that we take a long-term view of the health of the horse,” Flanery said. “These are real reforms that can and will be enacted.”

Dr. Will Farmer, a veterinary coordinator for Breeders’ Cup, said use of therapeutic medication is a “necessary part” of equine health but shouldn’t be “misused or overused.” He noted many of the reforms have been implemented by coalition members.

“We need to keep moving forward—these are merely building blocks for continuing and evolving medication reform,” Farmer said.

The coalition said it would commit financial resources to create new positions to implement and enforce the reforms. When asked how implementation would work, Flanery said via a combination of house rules and regulatory changes.

The Jockey Club, which for years has pushed for passage of the federal Horseracing Integrity Act, wasn’t named as a coalition member, but the organization did issue a statement of support Nov. 20.

“The Jockey Club supports the aims of this coalition and believes that its efforts will improve equine health,” Jockey Club President and Chief Operating Officer Jim Gagliano said. “The entire racing industry needs to get on board for these proposals to have maximum impact.

“The coalition’s agenda will make racing safer for horse and rider. Initiatives that capitalize upon the various safety databases are solid initiatives. Clearly, there is a lot of work to do and we’re pleased to see this group of racetrack organizations and the Breeders’ Cup working together.”

Not all members of the coalition support the Horseracing Integrity Act and there have been discussions about other ways to use federal agencies to facilitate adoption of various reforms and policies in racing.

“Everything is on the table including some form of federal legislation, but federal legislation, as we all know, can sometimes take time,” Fleming said. “We’re here today to make immediate, impactful change.”

“Protecting the health and welfare of our athletes is a complicated question that requires a multi-faceted approach,” Keeneland President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Thomason said. “That’s why we are implementing significant measures across the sport—from the quality of our track surfaces to ensuring horses are fit to run each and every time through medication reforms and enhanced veterinary examinations.

“There is no single solution and we are committed to finding the right answers, wherever that may lead us.”

Thomason recognized there are “great initiatives going on around the country” and that there would be coordination with the “effective efforts” by other organizations. The coalition also pledged open dialogue with industry stakeholders and the public.

As for racing surfaces—specifically synthetic surfaces—coalition members said everything is on the table.

“We will be looking at synthetic, turf and dirt,” Thomason said. “We know that surfaces are important.”

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