December 7 & 8, 2021 I attended my first Symposium on Racing, held in Tucson, Arizona and presented by the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. I attended because I was interested in the proposed agenda topics and because I’ve learned that I get so much more out of attending a conference or symposium than I do by simply reading about it later.
If you did not attend, I’m here for you! I took copious notes, not only from the presentations, but also from follow-up conversations I had with other attendees between presentations.
The first day of the symposium was heavy on matters pertaining to the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) but then segued into other topics. My recap is long but that’s only because nearly all of the topics and presentations are summarized here. To save time, just skip to the subjects in which you’re interested.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act/Authority
The Symposium on Racing’s discussion of HISA was broken down into several segments: first we heard from Charles Scheeler, Chairman, HISA Board of Directors. This was followed by a report from the HISA Safety Committee, then a report from the HISA Anti-Doping and Medication Control Committee. The HISA discussion wrapped up with a panel that presented observations from the Quarter Horse and Harness Industries.
Rather than recapping each panel, I will offer my takeaways from the presentations, offering what I now believe to be both the pros and cons of HISA and its imminent implementation. I’ll be begin with my concerns—what I believe to be the cons.
Anyone who loves horses and horse racing wants racing to be safer. And I initially supported the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act—now the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA)—at least in theory, because HISA offers the promise of safer racing and more accountability.
After attending the 47th Annual Global Symposium on Racing, I must admit, I have some reservations about HISA and its implementation. I want to believe they will address all of these concerns before HISA goes into effect, and I would be remiss not to share them.
1. Funding is still a mystery and not a grave concern for tracks with a solid bottom line. But what about tracks that are operating on a shoestring budget and don’t always end each racing season in the black? What about racetracks that run mixed meets with both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses? At least in the beginning the Authority has domain over Thoroughbreds but not Quarter Horses. What happens in a mixed breed race? Is it possible that we will see a situation where the Quarter Horses can run on Lasix while the Thoroughbreds cannot?
And while post-race testing does not fall under the domaine of HISA until 2023, if Quarter Horse racing is not yet adopted into the fold at that point, will HISA only test the Thoroughbreds while Quarter Horse testing will still be left to their prior arrangement?
Also related to funding, during the HISA Racetrack Safety Committee presentation with committee director Ann McGovern facilitating the discussion with committee chair Dr. Susan Stover, we learned that racetracks will be required to obtain NTRA or HISA accreditation for safety standards in order to operate. If in fact a racetrack cannot achieve these standards, “they will lose the ability to conduct interstate wagering.”
Key components of accreditation include:
- Expanded veterinary oversight
- Void claim rule
- Transfer of claimed horses’ medical records
- Surface maintenance and measurement standards
- Enhanced reporting standards
- Data reporting of medications, treatments, injuries, and fatalities
- Jockey concussions and medical care reporting
The data collected (medications, treatments, injuries, and fatalities, jockey injuries, and surface measurements) is to be submitted to a HISA governed data base. Dr. Stover went on to assure the audience that track superintendents will not be required to become scientists, that they will simply be asked to collect said data and submit the information.
But again, the funding issue is not addressed here. Especially at the smaller tracks working with a shoestring budget, track superintendents and their staff are already spread about as thinly as they can be, with individuals sometimes doing the work of two people. So, if a smaller racetrack has to hire additional personnel to collect said race track surface data, who pays for this additional salary?
And who pays for the “expanded veterinary oversight” or the additional medical screening and reporting of jockey injuries?
The third subject related to funding: Safety Officers. The implementation of Safety Officers is a laudable concept but again, who pays for these Safety Officers is still unclear.
Like many people who have had the privilege of competing at the highest levels of racing, I got my start at these small tracks and before me, my mother broke new ground at even smaller, lesser known tracks. These tracks have not only served as a launching pad for many of our sport’s most recognized names (D. Wayne Lukas, Gary Stevens, Steve Asmussen, Jerry Bailey, Bill Mott, Julie Krone, Mike Smith… the list goes on and on), they also offer a level of racing for horses that simply are not fast enough to compete at the highest levels of racing.
We tend to think of the bigger tracks as “horse racing”, but in fact, in the United States we currently have 93 racetracks in 38 different racing jurisdictions. These small tracks vastly outnumber the tracks that we see on network television.
We already have an “end user” problem with horses. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance has worked with racetracks and aftercare organizations all over North America to ensure a safer transition for horses going from racing to no longer being able to compete. Imagine how big this aftercare problem will become if we lose our base level racetracks.
2. Bleeding or Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhaging (EIPH): Peculiarly, in the HISA Rules and Regulations bleeding is defined as “the observation of blood from one or both nostrils as a result of exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage”.
Anyone who has ever worked with horses knows that a horse can bleed a 3 on a scale of 1-5 and exhibit epistaxis (visible blood from the nostrils) while another horse can bleed a 5 of 5 but the blood stays inside the lungs rather than coming out of the nostrils. And, in fact, the ones that bleed internally, rather than externally, are at greater risk for subsequent lung infections and/or pneumonia than the horse who bled at a 3 but with blood that did not enter the lungs (in great quantity) but rather, bled mostly with blood exiting through the nostrils.
I am also troubled by their defined timeline for bleeding as the regulation states under the Void Claim rule (page 156, item 2262): “… the claim shall be voided… if the Regulatory Veterinarian determines within one (1) hour of the race that the Horse will be placed on the Veterinarians’ List as Bled…” This means that if the horse scopes as having bled a 5 of 5 one hour and ten minutes after the race, the claim is not voided.
You can read the full and current set of HISA Regulations here but I must warn you, it’s 163 pages long and clearly written by a full legal team. Full disclosure, I have not read all of it.
Look, I’m all for the reduction and possibly, the elimination of Lasix as it’s clear that United States racing has gotten to a point of abusing the substance. It’s used on more than 90% of its participants. But I am not ok with an incorrect definition of what EIPH is and how the Authority identifies it.
3. Some of the cited stats and data may or may not be accurate. I’m speaking specifically of the information provided during the HISA Racetrack Safety Committee presentation when Dr. Stover proffered that 50% of jockey injuries occur due to a catastrophic breakdown or sudden death of a horse.
I have not seen the source of this statistic, but I was surprised to hear it and know many of my former jockey colleagues would be as well. In my career as a jockey I incurred 7 concussions, broke my nose 7 times, broke my collarbone, several ribs, and at least a couple of vertebrae. Not one of these injuries was the result of a catastrophic breakdown or sudden death.
To be sure, I did ride horses that suffered catastrophic breakdowns and had three horses succumb to sudden death but I was very fortunate in that none of these deaths resulted in an injury to me. My injuries occurred from being hit in the head by a horse, being bucked off, having horses duck out from underneath me (while shying from something), stumbling out of the starting gate, having a horse attempt to jump the inside rail at the 1/8th pole, having a stirrup strap break, etc., but never from a catastrophic breakdown or sudden death. I would like to see how this jockey injury data was collected.
Given all of the concerns I have expressed above it should also be noted that I also walked away from the Symposium feeling better about HISA in a few regards.
1. HISA and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) have not yet signed an agreement as USADA needs to see HISA’s plan in its entirety before agreeing to act as the anti-doping agency. Good move by USADA. Also, HISA goes into effect on July 1, 2022, and at that time USADA will only conduct out of competition testing (providing they sign the agreement), while the states will still conduct their own post-race testing. In the first quarter of 2023 (mid-summer) USADA will take over the race day and post-race testing.
2. USADA has established lab accreditation guidelines so, while USADA will still rely on the labs that are currently in place in the various racing jurisdictions, they will supply each lab with their requirements for minimal testing compounds. This means that they will apply the same lab rules to all labs in all jurisdictions. Same required testing, same results-reporting requirements.
3. HISA will use data bases that are mandated at each track and for all horses. These data bases will, not only track injuries, but also medications. They will also be used for the reporting of track (dirt, turf and synthetic) conditions.
4. Sanctions extend to “covered horses” so it will no longer be possible for an owner to simply move a horse that tested positive for a banned substance to another trainer. For horses with positive drug tests, they could be sanctioned from “0-14 Months or Life based on the Substance or Method”.
5. The “Whereabouts” rules will require that a trainer and/or owner report the whereabouts of a covered horse at all times, even if they’re turned out and/or recovering from an injury. Failure to cooperate could result in sanctions of “12 Months for a Whereabouts or an Evasion/Refusal Violation.”
The Racing Symposium Beyond HISA
While much of the early focus of day one was around HISA, the symposium went on to offer some very interesting panel discussions. The following were what I considered to be the highlights.
The Way Forward
“The Way Forward” Panel was moderated by Charlie Hayward, President and Publisher of Thoroughbred Racing Commentary with panelists: Shannon Arvin, President & CEO, Keeneland Race Course; Josh Rubinstein, President, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club; David O’Rourke, President & CEO, New York Racing Association; and Craig Fravel, CEO, 1st Racing.
Keeneland’s Shannon Arvin shared that with regard to horse racing she’s “more optimistic now” than she’s ever been. Keeneland’s “way forward” is a three-fold approach that begins with innovation. Arvin offered, “You won’t hear us say, ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it’.” Keeneland will continue to look for and embrace ways to improve both the racing product and the fan experience.
The second key approach is continued community outreach. One of the many ways they do that is with the Keeneland Kids’ Club which is open to all kids and includes several activities including regular Saturday morning invitations that allow the kids to get up close to the horses. They are also committed to the Make A Wish Foundation, offering an annual Make A Wish Day at the track.
The third approach involves using social media. Arvin has hired photographers to not only take pretty pictures of horses, but to capture the best images they can of the bond between horses and humans and then share these images via their social media outlets.
The NYRA’s, David O’Rourke believes “it’s time for us to become extremely aggressive… sports betting is presenting a once in a lifetime opportunity.” He went on to explain that sports betting has influenced and shaped NYRA’s relationship with their network partner, FOX Sports.
NYRA began by launching their NYRA Bets advanced deposit wagering (ADW) platform and then leveraged an equity position with FOX to get airtime on FOX Sports. Growth of the sport, increased wagering on NYRA Bets, and increased airtime of New York horse racing on FOX Sports is a win-win for everyone involved.
1st Racing’s Craig Fravel began by saying that he’s heard about the demise of racing for 30 some years now and, like Arvin, he remains optimistic.
Fravel talked about how their experience during the Covid restrictions period taught them a lot about how much they missed the fans and gave them time and space to create new ways to enhance the fan experience. He also noted that the collaborative efforts between The Stronach Group (TSG) tracks and the various horsemen’s groups in California, Maryland and Florida strengthened the relationship between TSG and the horsemen.
He also noted that TSG has continued to invest in safety initiatives, infrastructure, and backstretch improvements citing the newly installed Tapeta course at Gulfstream Park and the “Racing Into the Future” initiative in Maryland as examples.
Del Mar’s Josh Rubinstein was asked to discuss Del Mar’s remarkably low catastrophic injury rates—and their impressive reduction over the past three years. Whereas the national rate of catastrophic injury was 1.68 per 1,000 starts in 2018, Del Mar’s rate was 0.79. In 2019 they reduced that number to 0.62 and in 2020 the number had fallen to 0.29 (while the U.S. average had fallen to 1.41).
Rubinstein shared that 2016 was “a very challenging year and it forced us to look at everything we were doing.” The first change they made was bringing in Santa Anita’s track superintendent, Dennis Moore and also Dr. Mick Peterson, director of the University of Kentucky’s Racetrack Safety Program.
Working together, Moore and Peterson began with banking the turns at Del Mar so that they matched the banking on the turns at Santa Anita (where the Del Mar horse population trains for most of the year). They also did the best they could to make the track surface at Del Mar as similar as possible to that of Santa Anita’s.
Del Mar also instituted a rule whereby, during the first 10 minutes of the track opening, only workers—no gallopers—are allowed on the track. This allows horses who are working to get the freshest surface possible. They also placed two veterinarians trackside and those vets are in communication with the outriders and can flag horses for inspection. Additionally, they are utilizing the InCompass database to flag horses that seem more likely to breakdown (based on race or layoff patterns).
Lastly, he cited the Void Claim Rule, no use of the riding crop during training hours, an increase in out of competition testing, and other changes to California medication regulations as having (essentially) changed the culture of horse racing in California. As Fravel reiterated, “It can’t be just the track, or horsemen’s group, or regulators. It has to be everybody.”
Fravel added, “We can’t be promoters of the sport and regulators of the sport at the same time. Having credible, national figures able to address critical issues as they arise in the sport is important.”
The Decoupling Debate
The Decoupling Debate was interesting because all four of the panelists took a slightly different approach to this issue. By the way, this was not about decoupling an entry (1 & 1A) but about decoupling revenue dollars begat from alternative gambling sources from purse structure.
As most readers know, at one time horse racing was the only sporting event on which you could legally wager and in most states, the only legal wagering opportunity…period. And so when other forms of wagering began to be presented, horse racing took one of three approaches: 1) utter obstructionism, 2) “give us part of the revenue and we’re all in”, or, 3) “we’ll create the opportunity as we’re the only license holders” (e.g. video lottery terminals, historical horse racing…).
These latter two approaches were fine until other groups began wanting portions of revenue that were going to supplement purse structure. Other groups argue that these dollars should go toward education, pubic housing, infrastructure… you name it. And it’s not difficult to get government representatives on your side when you’re asking that dollars going toward supplementing sports and/or gambling go to education instead. Supporting education funding wins votes. So what’s the counter argument?
Mike Tanner, Executive Vice President, United States Trotting Association, suggested personalizing horse racing by showcasing the people it supports—as opposed to this sport being all about profit for the race tracks. He used the “We Are New York Racing” campaign as an example where in one commercial a middle-aged woman talks about how working as a groom at the racetrack enabled her to pay her way through college and improve her life.
He also suggested that tracks and lobbyists for the tracks show how the money is staying in the state—breeders, feed companies, veterinarians, etc.—and how this money is also supporting the lives of many people who are not necessarily at the track working with the horses.
Jeff True, Principal, JTrue Consulting, suggested that tracks need to be good corporate citizens, getting involved in the community so that the community appreciates you and what you do, not just through actions but also through financial contributions to civic philanthropy. Additionally, tracks need to demonstrate that supporting horse racing has a far reaching impact such as preserving green space and supporting farmers.
Najja Thompson, Executive Director, New York Thoroughbred Breeders, said that in New York they also emphasize how New York racetracks, not only protect green space, but also prevent urban sprawl and again, points out the positive economic impact on breeders, feed companies, hay companies, and such—all entities that are not necessarily at the track. And while subsidizing education is noble, if the money stays within the industry you’re supporting an existing community and quality of life for the backstretch workers and their children. This extends to better education and medical care for this entire community.
Keys to Growing Sponsorship Revenue
This panel was moderated by Fritz Widaman, Vice President of NTRA Advantage, with panelists Tom Fletcher, Senior Vice President, Global Partnerships Solutions, Phoenix Suns, and Joe Moeller, General Manager, Arizona Wildcats Sports Properties. As the name suggests, this panel focused on the growing sponsorship relationships.
Tom Fletcher led the discussion with a presentation that highlighted some of the unique ways that the Phoenix Suns are meeting their sponsor’s needs—and it’s no longer through signage or ads in the program. The avant-garde Suns stadium now includes a “Saddle Bar” where a row of western saddles, seat height, are literally in a row along the bar. People use the saddles for photo opportunities, not so much sitting in the saddle and drinking but “saddle up to the bar” takes on new—and literal—meaning here.
He also shared that one of their most lucrative relationships is with a 401K company (that went unnamed) that moved all advertising dollars from “advertising” to their VIP Club, located in the Suns stadium. The Club allows admittance only to seat owners of the coveted seats in the first 2 rows of the stadium. This VIP Club has become so exclusive that it’s the hottest ticket in town—but few people can get one. This same company has also contracted with the Phoenix Suns to take six of their clients to Las Vegas for a NBA Event. This company does not have any signage in the stadium or ad space in the Phoenix Suns program.
Joe Moeller, speaking about the Arizona Wildcats, said that the University of Arizona is all about offering unique fan engagement opportunities. For them it’s opening their basketball courts, football fields, soccer fields, etc., on off days to offer kids within the community a chance to get on the field—or court—and experience that sports environment on some level. He challenged the racing industry to look at how they’re using their facilities on their dark days (a “dark day” is racing lingo for days when there is no scheduled racing). Is it possible that we could have a day that is designed around kids—just kids?
My note: Perhaps kids could go into the jock’s room and see how tiny the jockeys’ saddles are, or take turns riding the equisizers found in many of the jock’s rooms (equisizers are a horse-like piece of exercise equipment with a spring-loaded neck that jockeys and other riders use). Maybe as part of the outing, they could get their class picture taken in the winner’s circle, and take turns feeding carrots or peppermints to one of the outriders’ horses.
NTRA Advantage’s Fritz Widaman discussed the partnership that the NTRA has with John Deere and said that for them also, it is not about signage or an ad page in the racing program. The value-add that the NTRA offers John Deere is the relationships they’ve developed with different racetracks. They want racing fans to see their tractors on the track at the Kentucky Derby and at the starting gate on a Breeders’ Cup telecast.
When asked about the unique position of horse racing—where advertisers may shy from the possibility of a highly publicized catastrophic breakdown—Fletcher disclosed that when his firm handled advertising and public relations for the Trail Blazers they were, at least at one point, referred to within the community as “the jail blazers”. He recommended that horse racing remember that we’re selling an experience, the history of the sport, and the unique opportunities of gathering that horse racing offers.
Like Keeneland’s Shannon Arvin, after attending this year’s Symposium on Racing, I am more optimistic than ever about the future of horse racing. I witnessed some great minds who genuinely care about the sport of horse racing and its wellbeing, collaborating in the best interest of the sport. Many did not agree on the topics, the primary issues, or the solutions, but everyone was there to listen and offer their very best. Horse racing deserves nothing less.
Donna is one of the most decorated female jockeys of all time. Now retired from race-riding, she is currently an award winning sports analyst and commentator for NBC, and the author of the book, “Inside Track: Insider’s Guide to Horse Racing”, which is now in its second printing. When she’s not on location, or in meetings, you can find her writing, reading, traveling and spending time with her husband Frank and her two dogs.