Anne M. Eberhardt

Belmont Park in Midst of Accreditation Review

Belmont Park has been inspected by the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance.

As officials in Maryland work to achieve full accreditation for Pimlico Race Course through the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance, the New York Racing Association is anticipating alliance approval for Belmont Park before the June 6 Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

On May 14, the alliance announced Pimlico received “provisional” accreditation because not all documents tied to an inspection were submitted. The documents deal with drug testing and compliance standards. Officials said there are no safety issues at the racetrack.

Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, said May 15 the issues are regulatory in nature. For instance, Maryland does testing for TCO2—“milkshakes”—on a random basis, but a national model rule calls for it to be done “on a more consistent basis,” he said.

Maryland, Hopkins said, expects to have a rule for padded whips in place by the fall, and also could tweak its medication policies to be more in line with national standards.

“These are things we can work on and things we can discuss,” Hopkins said.

The alliance has asked for a response within 30 days, though Pimlico has leeway because it’s not scheduled to offer live racing again until the spring of 2010. The current meet ends May 23.

“From our perspective, they’re doing almost everything called for in the (alliance code of standards),” NTRA senior vice president of communications Keith Chamblin said. “They’re lacking in a written compliance program. We realize this could take longer than 30 days, but we’ve received assurances the Maryland Jockey Club, Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and Maryland Racing Commission are working together on passage of uniform regulations in a timely fashion.”

The alliance has asked the MJC and horsemen to petition the MRC to adopt rules for out-of-competition testing and collection of frozen samples for future testing.

Chamblin said Pimlico, a member of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, thus far has chosen not to have the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, which falls under the TRA, handle its security assessment. Pimlico, then, would have to hire a third party to do the assessment, he said.

Ideally, the review would be held during live racing when horses are stabled at the track. “There are some unique issues relating to Pimlico and its racing dates,” Chamblin said.

TRA executive vice president Chris Scherf said the TRPB is providing the alliance security review without any fee to TRA members. He said the TRPB, which has a written plan that enumerates 160 distinct elements of review and inquiry, is willing to conduct reviews for non-member tracks for "very reasonable compensation" to ensure a standard evaluation for all tracks.

In New York, alliance representatives were at Belmont May 13-14, and paperwork was sent to the NTRA May 15, NYRA president and chief executive officer Charlie Hayward said.

“I think it went very well,” Hayward said. “There are some follow-up issues I would characterize as administrative. (NYRA manager of racing operations) Bruce Johnstone is our compliance officer, and he did a great job putting it all together.”

NYRA hopes Belmont is accredited before the Belmont Stakes, third leg of the Triple Crown. Hayward said Saratoga will be inspected by the alliance before the live meet there begins in late July.

“We’re working on (an accreditation) schedule as our race meets open,” Hayward said. “The good news about Saratoga is on-track protocols are already in place.”

The alliance code as currently written doesn’t contain provisions for “safety” rails, something the Jockeys’ Guild has discussed over the years. Not all tracks in the United States have the same rail; some are wooden, some metal, some plastic, and some have a flat top to protect fallen riders. The debate lingers.

Churchill Downs, in its own safety plan released earlier this year, includes a “professionally designed and installed safety rail on the inside of the dirt course” on the list of objectives. By some definition, Churchill already has one. The rails at the three NYRA tracks are more traditional in style.

“I’m not aware there is a safety rail anywhere,” Hayward said. “I don’t think any are proven to be safer than others. We don’t have an issue with any of the rails at Belmont, Saratoga, or Aqueduct.”

Chamblin acknowledged there is “some debate over what actually constitutes a safety rail.” He said the Association of Racing Commissioners International model rule is dated and refers to what would be considered a “traditional” safety rail—something that equates to the “Fontana” brand wide rail to protect a jockey if he is thrown over or under it. Those wide rails during the winter can cast shadows that could lead to uneven racing surfaces, he said.

Chamblin said there are many types of turf rails, including hedges. None conform to the RCI model rule. Also, some jockeys believe a rail can be safe even though it doesn’t conform to the model rule, he said.

“After meetings and input from virtually every alliance track, jockeys, horsemen, regulators, and others, it was determined that the alliance was not prepared to include the RCI model (for safety rails) in the existing code of standards,” Chamblin said. “We are studying this issue, and hope to reach a consensus that could lead to an updated model rule that can be included in the code at some point in the future.”

In other alliance business, Delaware Park was inspected along with Pimlico in May. Chamblin said an announcement on Delaware Park's accreditation status is forthcoming.

"Our hope would be to accredit NYRA in advance of the Belmont Stakes," Chamblin said. "A number of other tracks are actively in the process of filling out the application and are seeking accreditation in the very near future. Monmouth Park, Hollywood Park, Emerald Downs, and Arlington Park--there are a good number of tracks in the pipeline."