One down, but many more to go in a process designed to never hit the finish line.
The accreditation of Churchill Downs by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance is being called a major accomplishment by the officials involved, but they also acknowledge it’s just the beginning. Safety and integrity standards will change, and compliance will be reviewed at least every two years.
The accreditation process isn’t perfect. But for now, Churchill, which in three weeks will host the first leg of the Triple Crown, has more than met the criteria issued by the alliance, an industry group formed last fall to protect equine and human participants in horse racing.
Churchill was out in front with its own safety initiatives announced in March. The Kentucky track spent about $1 million on the project, which included applying for alliance accreditation.
“It doesn’t come easy,” said Tommy Thompson, the alliance’s independent monitor and former governor of Wisconsin and secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. “This first one—you want to do it right. Do I agree with everything? Absolutely not. But my job is to tell you what they say they are doing is actually going on.”
Thompson was among those who spoke during an April 9 press conference at Churchill to announce the accreditation. He spent a few days earlier in the week doing an on-site inspection and interviewing staff.
“In this case, the application speaks for itself,” Thompson said of Churchill. “The Kentucky Derby will be held here in a few weeks, and each year you want it to be safer and better. The integrity is here—it’s sound. From what I’ve seen, the certification is absolutely correct.”
The application for accreditation is almost 50 pages and requires supplemental information. When asked whether individual racetrack reports would be made public, alliance officials said the decision would be made by the tracks.
“There is a lot of proprietary data,” NTRA president and chief executive officer Alex Waldrop said. “It’s a call for the tracks to make.”
Churchill general manager Jim Gates said the track wouldn’t make public the full report. “It does contain a lot of proprietary data, and it’s not something we’d be comfortable releasing.”
First track gets top grade
Churchill’s own safety and integrity standards include extensive testing of all winning horses; independent, standardized third-party testing and monitoring of its racing surfaces; and mandatory, independent necropsies of horses that die from racing or training injuries.
“We were in pretty good shape (before the accreditation process),” Gates said. “We worked with state regulators and other industry groups. We’ve gone above and beyond what’s required in the (alliance) code.”
Thompson indicated there weren’t any deficiencies. At this point, he said his major concern is two-year accreditation.
“I think it should be an annual accreditation,” Thompson said, noting that situations and standards will change depending on what’s happening in the industry.
Thompson, who said he will issue “report cards” for tracks, gave Churchill an A, so the standard has been set. The two other Triple Crown tracks—Pimlico Race Course and Belmont Park—have indicated an intent to be accredited.
Waldrop said he anticipates the two facilities will be inspected before the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and Belmont Stakes (gr. I), but he couldn’t say the accreditation process would be completed. The process is voluntary; 55 tracks are alliance members, but whether they and others will submit to the accreditation process remains to be seen.
Waldrop also indicated tracks wouldn’t lose their accreditation without a serious review. For instance, a spate of catastrophic breakdowns wouldn’t put the track’s status in jeopardy.
“I’m not going to say a rash of breakdowns would be good cause (to pull accreditation),” Waldrop said. “It would have to be a pattern of activity or a pattern of disregard for the standards.”
Alliance the more popular option?
The alliance is based on practices used by other industries to ensure compliance with standards and best practices. It is an alternative sought by many industry stakeholders who oppose federal regulation of the pari-mutuel horseracing industry.
Thompson, who owned what he called “a tail” of the racehorse Flashy Bull, said even with federal oversight, states would have regulatory powers. Now an attorney with a law firm that helped design the alliance standards, Thompson said: “The federal government hasn’t done that great running Wall Street and many other organizations.”
Membership in and accreditation by the alliance is voluntary. It doesn’t replace regulation by the individual states, though many of its standards have been or will be adopted by many racing jurisdictions.
Officials said no track will be forced to comply. Ultimately, the public will play a key role, they said.
“The fans, we believe, will gravitate to those tracks that have committed to health and safety and integrity,” Waldrop said.
“The other tracks will be forced into doing it,” Thompson said.
State funding still major issue
Compliance isn’t cheap, as evidenced by Churchill’s financial outlay. The alliance charges each track an accreditation fee, but it’s also raising money through a donation program outlined in a brochure. Waldrop has said the alliance would reach out to all stakeholders that ultimately benefit from an improved racetrack environment.
“We’re not concerned about dollars,” Waldrop said. “We’re more concerned about what states are willing to spend to regulate rather than what tracks are willing to spend.”
A lack of funding for racing regulation on the state level has shadowed the industry for years. The NTRA is lobbying for increased funding, as is the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which will address the issue during its annual convention in Lexington the week of April 19.
Churchill president and CEO Bob Evans noted the big push for health and safety reforms in racing began after Barbaro broke down in the 2006 Preakness. He and other officials have attempted to dispel the notion that the industry didn’t take notice until Eight Belles broke down galloping out after the 2008 Derby and the federal government held a hearing on the industry in June last year.
Criticism of and unhappiness in the industry never has been worse than it is now, in part because of high-profile issues that have attracted attention by the mainstream media. Evans said he has been pleasantly surprised by the progress made even in the last year.
“We’re really pleased to be the first (accredited track),” Evans said. “I hedged my bets, because often in this industry, there are things that are supposed to happen that don’t happen. Now, the challenge is: Can we make even more progress in the year ahead?”
"Over time, the tracks and horsemen that support the alliance will lead the industry in the right direction and secure horse racing's future for generations to come," Waldrop said.