The California Horse Racing Board will begin enforcing a regulation prohibiting the use of front toe grabs exceeding four millimeters in length after commissioners voted Feb. 22 to reverse their decision last month to ignore the rule.
The long-running controversy came to a head Jan. 23 after trainers such as John Shirreffs complained that the board was infringing on their authority by regulating the length of the grabs, which are designed to help horses maintain balance. However, numerous studies have pointed to their danger. One study, by Dr. Sue Stover of the University of California-Davis, demonstrated that high toe grabs on front shoes make a Thoroughbred 16 times more likely to suffer a catastrophic injury while racing.
Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB’s equine medical director, said that “the evidence is irrefutable – it’s there in black and white. Enforcement of this rule will save horses’ lives.”
Arthur was joined in support by Darrell Haire, western regional manager of the Jockeys’ Guild, and Guy Lamothe, executive director of the Thoroughbred Owners of California.
Board chairman Richard Shapiro changed his position to support enforcement, as did member John Andreini. They joined John Harris, Marie Moretti, and William Bianco in a 5-1 vote, with Jerry Moss voting against it.
Shapiro said he participated in a conference call with Harris and others who support the regulation, and he came away convinced.
“I don’t like the idea of government stepping into something like this,” Shapiro said. “But I certainly don’t want to oppose anything that will save one horse. Certainly we need to protect the horses. There was some pretty convincing evidence.”
Moss, though, noted that with California due to switch to synthetic surfaces at its major tracks by next year, each will have different factors to consider. He noted that Woodbine, which runs on Polytrack, returned to using toe grabs. “They had to,” he said, “because the track (consistency) had changed. The racetracks should decide what’s best.”
Charles Dougherty, representing the California Thoroughbred Trainers, argued, “You are taking away a fundamental right of trainers to use a type of equipment. We ask that you not go forward with enforcement of this rule.”
Arthur said backstretch notification of the rule would begin immediately and implementation could begin after the current meets end in both halves of the state.
The board first passed the rule in February 2006 prohibiting front toe grabs exceeding the four-millimeter length. But enforcement was slowed because few manufacturers produced low toe grabs and trainers resisted the rule, arguing that few used them and they knew best what worked for their horses. A subsequent rule amendment that would have relaxed the requirement to five millimeters was not passed last summer.
This month, a horse welfare committee of The Jockey Club recommended a national policy patterned after the California rule.
In other action, Haire told the board that he is working with former jockey Ron Warren Jr. on the development of a self-insurance program in the state for riders and their families. The program, which would use about $1 million a year earmarked for jockey health benefits from un-cashed refund tickets, is separate from the workers’ compensation program funded by the industry, which handles on-track insurance. Warren, who began the California Jockeys Guild about two years ago, told the board he has signed up about 80 of the 103 eligible riders in the state and is working with a couple of insurance companies on coverage plans..
Shapiro reported that the board’s strategic planning committee is continuing to work on a long-range plan for California racing. He said the committee has been moving deliberately because of the uncertainty surrounding the future of Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows, potential state legislation that could include mitigation to racing in any future Indian casino compacts approved by the governor, and the pending referendum in the Northern California town of Dixon on Magna Entertainment Corp.’s proposed $250 million racetrack, Dixon Downs. The special election is April 17, Shapiro said, and he expressed doubts that, even if it passes, the track could be built in time to be a viable replacement for Bay Meadows, which is under redevelopment threat in San Mateo.
Eual Wyatt, Hollywood Park’s general manager, said that current owners are committed to racing at the Inglewood track through Sept.23, 2008, as part of its purchase agreement.
"We could run further, and I think we will," Wyatt said.
But Cliff Goodrich, representing Fairplex Park, said he is “troubled” by Hollywood Park's position. “effectively holding the industry hostage.” He said that mitigation may fail and the Bay Meadows Land Company -- which owns both Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows -- needs to establish a “date certain” for closure.“"Nobody is going to stick a shovel in the ground or spend $100 million while Hollywood is looking at options," Goodrich said.