Racing officials and regulators gathered April 1 for the Racing Officials Accreditation Program Conference acknowledged a need for transparency, consistency, and quick, cohesive action in response to high-profile incidents. But they also said it's necessary to maintain the integrity of officiating and governance.
Members of ROAP met for two days at the White Clay Creek Country Club at Delaware Park to discuss everything from medication to disqualifications. The continuing education program for stewards, judges, and other racing officials holds meetings throughout the year.
Dr. Ted Hill, a steward at the New York Racing Association tracks, discussed potential changes in light of a proposal by his state's gaming commission following a controversial incident at Gulfstream Park in Florida. The regulatory agency has floated the idea of making public video, audio, and actual votes made after inquiries and objections.
In the Gulfstream incident, a disqualification in the final race of the day cost a patron with the only live Rainbow Pick 6 ticket a $1.5 million payoff. The stewards' decision didn't cause nearly as much public criticism as the lack of communication with bettors for days after the disqualification took place.
Hill said he reached out to officials in Hong Kong and South Africa and was told neither jurisdiction discloses how stewards vote. He noted Hong Kong issues extensive reports on every racing program, but there is no live broadcast of deliberations.
"There is misinformation out there. No goodwill can come from disclosure of voting decisions," said Hill, who noted such policy could "undermine the confidence of stewards" and lead them to go with the majority rather than being publicly accused of being wrong.
Hill also said making public the conversations jockeys have with stewards during an inquiry or objection could hinder the stewards' work. "I'm afraid if jockeys know everything they say is going to be made public information, they'll have to fall back to the standard line (rather than provide helpful information)," he said.
Clinton Pitts, a Virginia steward who at one time worked in Hong Kong, said stewards' reports in Hong Kong are extensive and published in 22 daily newspapers in three languages. He said, however, there are major differences between Hong Kong and the United States.
"They race two days a week, have no shippers, and have only 25 trainers and 250 horses," Pitts said. "The playing field there is kept very level. That's non-existent in this country."
Hill and others at the ROAP meeting did say there should be procedures in place to be as transparent as possible should there be inquiries and objections in major races or when unusual situations like the Rainbow Pick 6 develop. He said NYRA stewards are prepared to have a representative publicly address such incidents.
"Probably going forward we need to be a little bit more prepared for that," Hill said.
"There is still talk about the Rainbow Pick 6," ROAP chairman Hugh Gallagher said. "We need to realize we have a responsibility to communicate what we believe to the media. If it's done in a cogent, cohesive way, we can get there first with the most."
Gallagher said the tools of the trade for stewards and judges have changed dramatically over the years, but the basic task of making informed decisions has not. He said the job "requires commitment that must survive every level of review," and suggested that pertains to every position in horse racing.
ROAP officials discussed possible changes in the industry in light of the secret video taken in 2013 by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals at the barn of trainer Steve Asmussen. Three racing jurisdictions are investigating the case.
"We're all involved in vigilance seriously," Gallagher said. "The future of racing depends on inter-commitment from everyone."
John Wayne, executive director of the Delaware Horse Racing Commission and a former investigator for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, said he formed a committee in the Mid-Atlantic region to encourage the sharing of any pertinent information among jurisdictions.
"If something happens in Delaware, they get a copy of it," Wayne said. "We keep in touch. The TRPB is a shadow of the company it used to be; there are no more field agents. So it's very important to stay in touch with each other. Remember, it's your business, because if something happens we all get the black eye."
Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, a member of the ROAP Education Committee and racing director for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, took a look at the bigger-picture issue of horse welfare in the wake of the PETA allegations. She is proposing all Massachusetts racing stakeholders adopt a "Horses First" policy that would be included in all manuals for trainers, veterinarians, and other licensees.
Massachusetts is one of the states that adopted the National Uniform Medication Program. It will consider a proposal to make public for all horses drug-testing results that show levels of TCO2 and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
In a talk that included information from a presentation on equine welfare by Dr. Tom Lenz of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, Durenberger said horse racing does an excellent job on research and presenting scientific data, but the welfare issue goes beyond that because it is a moral issue.
"When we deal with people not in horse racing, what do they see? That a horse lives in a box stall for 24 hours," she said. "We can throw science at this all day long, but science is something that will not win any type of conversation about welfare."
Durenberger, a former steward and racetrack vet, said the "common ground" is to have and publicize a "deep care of horses." She said racing regulatory agencies making strong statements in that regard is a step in the right direction.
The PETA video that has been released shows no illegal activity under racing rules, but it does display a culture not uncommon in the business. It was noted during the ROAP meeting that those not involved in horse racing could view the videotaped activities as abusive.
"The industry has done a great job the last seven years with research and statistics, but this is a cultural message," Durenberger said. "The simple messages are the ones that resonate. I think it's the culture (of the racing business) that will have to change."
Durenberger also suggested the industry provide training in regard to dealing with the media, and create a "crisis clearinghouse" for racing commissions so officials can quickly respond to incidents or media reports on the industry when necessary.