NTRA: 'Safety' Train to Leave Station

The Safety and Integrity Initiative will be unveiled Oct. 15, officials said.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association will unveil its Safety and Integrity Initiative Oct. 15 and fully expects broad industry cooperation given progress made thus far, officials said Oct. 1.

“The train leaves the station Oct. 15,” NTRA president and chief executive officer Alex Waldrop said during a presentation at the International Simulcast Conference in St. Petersburg, Fla. “The industry is going to change, and we’re making the effort to move forward. Every major horsemen’s group has signed up, and every major Thoroughbred racetrack is on board.”

As announced earlier, industry reforms will focus on equine medication and drug testing, injury reporting and prevention, safety research, fostering a safer racing environment, and aftercare for retired racehorses. The plan, details of which won’t be released until the Oct. 15 press conference in New York City, will feature a “phased approach,” with measured progress and compliance.

The NTRA will bear the operational costs and hire an individual to head the initiative. The biggest chunk of funding for implementation of recommendations will be paid by beneficiaries of reforms or the element that’s creating the cost, Waldrop said.

“The NTRA is going to step up with significant funding,” Waldrop said. “Costs will share equitably (within the racing industry).”

The Safety and Integrity Initiative was formed to implement—not recommend or mandate—reforms identified as necessary in the aftermath of the breakdown of the filly Eight Belles as she galloped out after the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). The Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders, and others have called for changes, many of which already are being implemented.

National uniformity, hindered by state-by-state regulation, isn’t as simple. The NTRA took the lead in devising a plan to ensure reforms are enacted.

Keith Chamblin, senior vice president of communications and industry relations for the NTRA, cited research that led the NTRA to take action. A “confidential and proprietary report” by SocialSphere Strategies indicated core fans and casual fans aren’t happy with the state of horse racing.

“In five words, our core fans are pissed,” Chamblin said. “They are very upset with us, and the intensity of their responses is very alarming to say the least.”

From July 2-10 of this year, interviews were conducted with about 1,200 sports fans, 600 core racing fans, and 180 industry participants. The objective of the study, Chamblin said, was to measure the overall health of the sport.

Core fans are most concerned with use of drugs in racehorses, while casual fans focus on equine health and safety. On both counts, perceptions are negative.

“We need to be in the right place in terms of perception and their attitudes toward our product,” Chamblin said. “We are at a crisis or tipping point. We’re where boxing was in the 1990s, and Tylenol was in the 1980s. The study claims a significant number of our 7.1 million core fans will abandon the sport (if changes aren’t made). It’s definitely not just the economy.”

The research found that in horse racing, marketing, education, and communications are most effective peer-to-peer and word of mouth, not through expensive national advertising campaigns. At the foundation is credibility and integrity.

“If you haven’t established credibility, you have no credibility,” Waldrop said. “The only we can do is act our way out of this problem.”

When asked after the presentation whether industry stakeholders would be exposed for not participating in the safety initiative, Waldrop said it would be “very public.” Chamblin said the NTRA would accomplish that by “reporting who is a part of the initiative.”
As for funding, always a stumbling block in racing, Waldrop said there is no projected cost for reforms at this time. NTRA operating costs will be decided by the organization’s board of directors.

Thoroughbred Racing Association's executive vice president Chris Scherf told racetrack representatives many TRA-member tracks have signed up. “We all own this problem, and we all have to own the solution,” Scherf said.

The Oct. 15 announcement won’t be the end. Items will be added to the reform plan as industry groups identify problem areas, one of which is the tote system. Todd Bowker, an industry consultant, suggested tote and related wagering issues be included.

“We’re going to let the (TRA) 2020 Committee come tell us (what to do), and we will make it part of the plan,” Waldrop said. “We would absolutely welcome specific recommendations.”

Industry officials have said wagering security issues, including past-posting and changes in odds after races have begun, do nothing but damage racing’s credibility.