By Karen M. Johnson and Tom LaMarra
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association officially unveiled series of equine health and safety reforms Oct. 15 that will be overseen by an independent monitor. During the news conference in New York City, less than two weeks before the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in California, the organization announced former four-term Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson will serve as independent counsel for the newly-formed Safety and Integrity Alliance.
The NTRA previously discussed the Safety and Integrity Alliance at the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association summer convention in June, and the International Simulcast Conference in early October. On both occasions NTRA president and chief executive officer Alex Waldrop said it is imperative industry stakeholders buy into the plan.
“I think it might be fair to say this is as important of an announcement in the 10-year history (of the NTRA) since its (formation) was announced,” said Robert Elliston, the executive chairman of the NTRA, at the press conference. “Today we are profiling one of the key functions of an organization like the NTRA, that represents every major constituency in the business. When the industry needs to bring all of its players to the table to focus its attention and resources on something that is so pivotal, like the safety of our equine and human athletes, is why we are here today.”
The reforms, which largely stemmed from the breakdown of the filly Eight Belles as she galloped out after the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) at Churchill Downs in May, are uniform medication rules for each state; a ban on steroids in racing; out-of-competition testing for blood-doping agents; uniform penalties for drug infractions; mandatory on-track and non-racing injury reporting; mandatory installation of an inner safety rail at tracks; mandatory pre- and post-race testing; and implementation of placement programs for Thoroughbreds that can no longer compete.
The reforms were approved by the NTRA board of directors in September. Fifty-four racetracks, horsemen’s groups, and other organizations have signed on, with more expected. Members must sign the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance Pledge, a printed version of which says the “undersigned affirms his/her commitment personally and as the authorized agent of any association listed below to these articles and the attached list of reforms as a member” of the alliance.
“The announcements we make this morning are the culmination of months and in fact years of hard work by many individuals and organizations within the Thoroughbred industry,” Waldrop said at the press conference. “The reforms we announce today are drawn from the recommendations that have emerged over the past several months and years. We are fortunate to have the excellent work from many organizations to build on, allowing the NTRA to focus our efforts on specific key elements so necessary to successful reform. Those elements are: implementation, oversight, measurement, and transparency.”
Waldrop recognized racing fans as being an important component to the formation of the alliance.
“The segment that is pressing us the most is our fans,” Waldrop said. “Through discussions, participation, polls, and increasingly through blogs and other forms of social media, we have learned much about our fans and our business. Our fans are passionate, they are committed. They want reform and they want it now.
“We do this because our fans demand it, yes, but we do it because our equine and our human athletes deserve nothing less.”
Thompson, former secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services and a partner in the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, will lead a team to perform an ongoing review of the alliance and provide quarterly and annual reports on its progress. According to a statement from the NTRA, Thompson’s team will “independently monitor and assess the program and provide annual public reports of the industry’s progress toward achieving its goals in the area of human and equine health and safety.”
Thompson, who owned an interest in grade I winner Flashy Bull who was campaigned by the syndicate of West Point Thoroughbreds, said of utmost importance to him will be his ability to act independently of the alliance.
"The only reason I (took on this responsibility) was under the conditions that I would be completely independent,” Thompson said at the news conference. “So I could take a look at what exactly is going on with the alliance, be able to offer suggestions, but also to be completely transparent. (I need) to be able to talk to the people. I want to talk to government officials. I want to talk to individuals who are opposed to horse racing.
“I will be issuing a report card (on the alliance) on a periodic basis and hopefully, they will be getting ‘A’s’, but if they get ‘F’s’, I’m going to report them.”
The alliance will serve as a “regulatory framework for an accreditation process,” said Keith Chamblin, senior vice president of communications and industry relations for the NTRA. There will be a code of conduct associated with the reforms, and members will be accredited by late next year, according to the plan. The regular updates will include a list of members; thus, those tracks and organizations that don’t appear on the list will be known as non-compliant. The NTRA will bear the infrastructure costs of the alliance, but Waldrop has said the industry at large will bear the costs of the reforms.
The NTRA plans to address wagering security as the alliance expands, and also will seek involvement by the Quarter Horse and Standardbred industries.
“Regulation goes across breed lines,” Chamblin said. “We can’t do this overnight or in one year, but we have to set a course.”
The NTRA, The Jockey Club, and other groups have been blasted by Congress for being unable to create a central agency for horse racing and police itself efficiently. The idea of the Safety and Integrity Alliance is to serve that purpose but work within the structure in which each state has its own regulations and is beholden to its own legislatures.
Among those attending the Oct. 15 press conference were Terry Meyocks, the national manager of the Jockeys’ Guild, Jim Gallagher, the executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and jockeys Alan Garcia and Rudy Rodriguez.