HISA discussion kicks off annual meeting of state racing regulators

By: Jennie Rees for ARCI

Posted: April 12, 2022

Lisa Lazarus, the new Chief Executive Officer of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, addressed state racing regulators April 11, making an appeal to “just give us a chance to get it right.”

Lazarus, who previously worked at the international governing body for equestrian sports and the National Football League, spoke as the Association of Racing Commissioners International kicked off its 88th annual conference on Safe Horses and Honest Sport in Lexington, Ky. The ARCI is the umbrella organization of the official rule-making bodies for professional horse and greyhound racing.

Much of the four-day conference is centered on HISA, which will fundamentally change how American horse racing is overseen, taking over medication and testing policy and many aspects involving safety from what previously was the domain of the state racing commissions.

“This is hard work, significant change for all of us,” Lazarus told the assembly of regulators and other industry entities. “We’re going to do our very best to get it right. But we’re going to make mistakes. And we’re going to have to correct them, because it’s never been done before. So I just ask you to give us a chance to get it right. But if you have a criticism, you tell us and give us a chance to fix it and that we work together.”

So far, there have been far more questions than answers since Congress passed HISA’s enabling legislation as part of the massive omnibus spending and COVID-19 relief bill in December 2020. The ARCI conference is the first time that HISA has made so much of its staff available to speak in public.

Lazarus also said that HISA expects to announce in May an agreement with an independent enforcement agency, as mandated by the federal law that goes into effect July 1. The United States Anti-Doping Agency, which for years had been promoted as being the enforcement agency, dropped out of negotiations in late December.

While the safety and welfare components of HISA’s new regulations go into effect July 1, the new anti-doping and medication control policies have been deferred until early 2023.

ARCI President and CEO Ed Martin called HISA “a fact.”

“Unless some judge says something differently, we have to make it work because this is going to be the reality,” said Martin, referencing lawsuits the various horsemen’s associations, some states and other entities have filed in federal court challenging the legislation’s constitutionality. “We have a responsibility to the general public, the industry and these wonderful animals that are the cornerstone of our sport.”

Lazarus, who started her job in mid-February, said HISA’s mission comes down to three things: safety for the human and equine participants, national uniformity that will benefit those “who want to play by the rules,” and to approach the creation and implementation of rules “in a spirit of collaboration with the industry.”

We are going to bend over backwards to find a way forward,” she said.

Washington Horse Racing Commission Chairman Bob Lopez, the outgoing ARCI Chair, offered perspective through a different lens. Lopez suggested that HISA hurt itself by largely ignoring the state regulators and their institutional knowledge from being in the trenches making rules and policy for horse racing for decades.

“The ARCI has been and remains extremely concerned about the impact and implementation that the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act will have on Thoroughbred racing,” Lopez said in pre-recorded remarks after circumstances prevented him from attending the conference. “We see many exciting possibilities to improve upon the good work we collectively do. We also see how missteps and missed opportunities might make it more difficult for the industry, and those in it, to survive in a highly competitive marketplace.”

Lopez said ARCI offered “to help HISA through the maze of various state governments. We offered our best advice on how to make this all work. We offered them free office space, free support staff, free committee coordination. Those offers, and much of our advice as to the realities of dealing with state government were often ignored. Perhaps it was the enormity of the challenge they face and the fact that almost all involved have never done this before. They are certainly in their rights to do so, but to ignore the wisdom of those who understand the ways of state government was inexcusable. I and many of my colleagues wonder why they chose to make this so difficult on themselves. While we welcome their new CEO, Lisa Lazarus, and wish her success, I fear what she has inherited will continue to be problematic to themselves and the industry they would help regulate.”

In his remarks, Lopez observed that many of the HISA-mandated safety rules set to go in effect July 1 were taken from the ARCI model rules.

You should take that as a compliment,” he said in his video remarks. “I trust our new colleagues at HISA will come to appreciate the level of commitment and expertise we all share for the safety and honest sport of horse racing and the welfare of our human and equine participants.”

The conference comes at a pivotal time for horse racing, with the high-profile federal indictments of more than two dozen people in alleged horse-doping schemes two years ago. That was followed by the disqualification of 2021 Kentucky Derby first-place finisher Medina Spirit for a race-day overage of a therapeutic medication and subsequent 90-day suspension of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. And sports betting is now legal in 33 states and is rapidly changing the wagering and regulatory landscape.

“There are a lot of things people are anxious to know, and I would say, probably including Lisa,” Martin said in his introduction of Lazarus. “It’s complicated. It’s multi-layered. It’s not easy. I met Lisa in person for the first time (April 10) and I said, ‘I think you’ve got the worst job in racing.’ I think she knows that. But we all have challenges. We all have to try to do the right thing. The survival of this industry depends on every aspect of it. We had a great conversation. All I can say is: This lady gets it. I look forward to working with her.”

For her part, Lazarus said: “I actually think I have the most phenomenal job and incredible opportunity.”

She also praised the racing regulators: “You are on the front lines. We’re not coming in to say, ‘That work isn’t good work.’ We just want to take it further, and really focus on uniformity. That’s where racing has a little ground to catch up on compared with other sports.”

The big unknown remains how much HISA will cost and who will pay for it.

“I understand that all of you are subjected to tight budgets,” Lazarus said. “The questions I get all the time are ‘This all sounds great, what is it going to cost?’ I wish I could answer that question standing here right now as far as specificity. What I can tell you right now is that we get it, we understand it, we’re sensitive to it. We’re going to work diligently to make sure that we use efficiencies, minimize costs when we can and also ultimately look for alternate funding models to help the industry bear the cost of these rules and regulations.”

A look at preliminary 2021 drug-testing numbers in U.S., Puerto Rico

Martin provided preliminary numbers for America’s 2021 pari-mutuel horse-racing testing results and said they are in line with sports whose testing are overseen by USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Martin said that racing regulatory authorities in the United States, including Puerto Rico, performed more than 243,627 post-race and out-of-competition tests. There were 1,150 adverse analytical findings resulting in regulatory action. Of those 1,021 were found in post-race samples and 129 from out-of-competition samples. Texas was not included because of an anomaly in the data submitted, with an updated report to be released later, Martin said.

The numbers show a 99.57% clear rate in post-race testing, with 97.9% of out-of-competition samples showing no adverse analytical findings. Martin said the statistics compute to a 99.53% compliance rate with the anti-doping and medication rules, with ARCI member horseracing authorities conducting the largest and most transparent anti-doping program in any U.S professional sport.

Of the positive findings, 2.4 percent of the drug infractions in flat races and 4.7% in Standardbred races involved Class 1 violations for substances that have no reason to ever be in a horse. Almost 70% of the rules infractions came in overages of largely therapeutic medications noted as Class 4 and 5 substances for their reduced ability to affect performance. Such substances are legal but not permitted to be present in a horse for a race.

“Just as in previous years, the U.S. horse-racing anti-doping program numbers track those of WADA and USADA regulated sports, meaning everyone is doing as good or as bad a job as the others are doing,” Martin said. “Are people cheating or trying to cheat? Absolutely—in every sport. We all have the same problem and must constantly remain on guard for new ways to dope and new ways to catch those who do, regardless of whether the athlete is human or equine.

“There are many opinions about the extent of the problem, but nobody truly knows. The only way to judge is to look at the data from those programs that are transparent. Everything else is conjecture. Perhaps because there are so many horse races, and so many horses tested, that it appears worse, when in fact the percentage of adverse analytical findings is in line with the USADA and WADA regulated sports.”

Martin said HISA’s anti-doping and medication control program will bring total uniformity to laboratory testing but that lab testing is not the only way to tackle the issue. He praised the work of the New York Gaming Commission with its paper audits that resulted in more than 1,600 drug violations against a harness trainer.

“The challenge for all of us is we need to be creative and determined with an element of surprise, in order to discourage those who would cheat from doing so,” Martin said.