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On Safety Side, HISA’s Uniform Standards Critical

Since taking oversight of the sport’s safety in 2022, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority has not pulled a long list of new rules from the clouds, but its ability to ensure uniform adoption of often already field-tested safety initiatives to protect horses and the sport’s human participants has made all the difference.

Make no mistake, in the years before HISA’s launch, tracks, horsemen, and state regulators adopted new safety standards that made a difference. But those efforts always faced critical hurdles in terms of uniformity because no group carried a big enough stick to ensure that every jurisdiction adopted the new rules and standards agreed upon by the majority in the industry.

Under HISA, those efforts in crafting rules and best practices have not been wasted. The new rules and best practices adopted in the pre-HISA years have proved fertile ground for HISA to examine or adopt for its safety rules. And under HISA, these standards are uniform—a needed commodity in a sport that can’t afford a weak link in the chain. 

Alan Foreman, chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, was a driving force in the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities which was formally adopted in March 2019. It saw improved safety numbers through its establishment of regional safety best practices, improved methods to identify horses at increased risk of injury, implementation of protective factors to reduce the risk of injury, and information sharing and communication. 

12-6-23 RTIP Global Symposium::RTIP Global Symposium On Racing held at Ventana Canyon Resort, Wednesday December 6th, 2023 in Tucson, AZ. <br>
12-6 -23 Photo by James S. Wood 520-247-9387
Photo: Race Track Industry Program/James S. Wood

Alan Foreman

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Foreman still sees strengths in thorough industry vetting of rules on the front end through groups such as the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which crafts model rules it encourages its state regulator members to adopt. But Foreman fully understands the strength of a system that can bring about uniform safety rules.

“The RCI approach was great because it got industry input. Their rules were consensus-based rules,” Foreman said. “But they had no hammer to get them done. It was strictly a voluntary situation. On the HISA side, the rules are obviously mandatory.”

Forward strides were made under the state-to-state regulation of the sport but The Jockey Club Equine Injury Database for HISA’s initial years suggests further improvements have been made. HISA began oversight of the sport’s safety in July 2022 and that year’s rate of 1.25 equine fatalities per 1,000 starts marked the safest rate in the history of the EID. 

In 2023, the first full year under HISA, the overall rate drifted up just a bit to 1.32. But, tellingly, if only tracks under HISA’s oversight were considered, it would have been another record year at 1.23. Because of ongoing litigation and previous court decisions, some United States tracks (in Louisiana, Texas, and West Virginia) are not under HISA oversight. In 2023, tracks remaining under state oversight saw a 32.5% worse fatality rate at 1.63 when compared with tracks under HISA. That stat points to the need of uniformity and eliminating weak links.

“The reduction in the rate of equine fatalities at tracks under our jurisdiction demonstrates that setting high standards for racetrack safety and anti-doping and medication control across the country makes Thoroughbred racing safer,” said HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus when the 2023 EID numbers were released.

Foreman agrees that HISA, and the uniformity it has brought, has made important strides in safety.

“The safety program clearly is showing benefits. Listen, I testified against the Horseracing Integrity Act. I was opposed to it,” Foreman said. “But when I was told that it’s going to happen, I said then to put a safety program in there—a mandatory safety program like what the Mid Atlantic does and California is doing. Safety is where you really need uniformity. And I think that program is working.”

Rule Process

According to HISA officials, the Racetrack Safety Standing Committee constantly reviews the rules in place to determine if they can be improved. As prescribed in the act that launched HISA, after a standing committee recommends a rule, it then needs to be approved by HISA’s board of directors. If a rule is approved by the HISA board of directors, it is submitted to the Federal Trade Commission.

Once submitted to the FTC, proposed rules are published to the Federal Register pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act, and a public comment period begins. After this period, the FTC determines whether or not to approve the submitted rule. The FTC also has the oversight to revise HISA’s rules if needed.

Rules require that any input provided during the public comment period be addressed by HISA, with an explanation of why the comment might be a good idea and has been added to the rule or why it is not a good idea and will not be added.

Industry leaders such as Foreman and Jockeys’ Guild president and CEO Terry Meyocks both cited uniformity as a strength of the HISA approach but wished there was more industry input at the start of the rule-making process.

Meyocks feels that compared with the current HISA process, the ARCI did a better job of listening to any concerns of the Guild early in the rule-making process. He also said the ARCI did a good job of having all parts of the industry represented in order to bring up potential problems early in the process of crafting its model rules.

Terry Meyocks in the paddock before the Juvenile Turf Sprint (G1T) at Santa Anita in Arcadia, CA on November 3, 2023.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

Terry Meyocks.

“We had input, we had input into the model rules,” Meyocks said. “And other industry people were there, whether it be veterinarians or horseman representatives. We’d meet for a day and a half and come to a solution.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Meyocks sees positives in HISA’s approach of implementing new rules uniformly as opposed to the ARCI’s model rules that state regulators could adopt, tweak, or ignore. Once a model rule was adopted, the Guild often had to send representatives to many of the regulators to encourage them to adopt the standard.

“In retrospect did all of those model rules get adopted in each jurisdiction? No. There was a model rule though which we would endorse and support but it would have been nice to have those model rules be uniform throughout the country,” Meyocks said. “It’s important to have uniform rules so that everybody knows what’s expected.”

A current rule Meyocks is concerned about for his members is the way riders are fined for infractions throughout the country. While the rule is uniform in the fine amounts, Meyocks believes better vetting when the rule was put in place might have landed on a rule that would uniformly base fines relative to a circuit’s average purses. He said the fines are a concern of horsemen as well and if everyone had sat down together, perhaps it would have been more clear as to how a $10,000 fine would hit riders differently in high-purse New York as opposed to low-purse Arizona. Citing declines in active riders and horsemen, Meyocks believes the rule has contributed to driving some from the game.

Meyocks said he’s completely sold on HISA’s interest in improving racing but he would like some tweaks in its rule-making process.

“HISA wants to benefit the game. The more they have input from respected people within our industry and have representatives from each organization speak their mind, the better it’s going to be,” Meyocks said. “Everybody’s not going to get what they want, but they should listen to people and come up with rules in the best interest of racing.”

Meyocks did say the Guild has regular communication with HISA and he appreciates that riders are represented on the HISA team by former rider and Guild regional representative Jeff Johnston. Meyocks said through HISA there’s been progression in concussion protocols and mental health assistance for riders and others in the industry.

Veterinarians walking away after track issue with Geaux Rocket Ride. <br>
Training at Santa Anita Park as horses prepare for the Breeders’ Cup on Oct. 28, 2023.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

Veterinarians tend to an on-track situation

“HISA has worked with us. We’ve had conversations about a whole bunch of safety issues,” Meyocks said. “They’ve hired as national medical director Dr. Pete Hester, who not only is a good friend but he’s an outstanding hire. He’s been remarkable and he’s trying to bring people together.”

John Roach, outside general counsel for HISA, said the Authority is receiving industry input, both in the comment period when the FTC considers a new or amended rule and, earlier in the process, through letters and phone calls from industry participants and state regulators. He said draft rules are sent to an industry list of racing leaders, tracks, and regulators to provide input and vetting. He said these types of processes produce hundreds of comments that are considered.

This type of interaction appears to be a driving force behind a potential HISA rule update that would see the current 14-day stand-down period for horses who receive intra-articular corticosteroid injections in the fetlock be extended to 30 days. 

California previously had the 30-day standard in place. When it shifted to the 14-day uniform standard of HISA, it reported a downturn in safety numbers. The California Horse Racing Board communicated its concerns to HISA, which then considered the proposal and ultimately advanced the 30-day standard for consideration by the FTC. Should it be approved, it will become the national standard shortly thereafter.

“We have a wonderful relationship with the CHRB and their stakeholders and the executive director. They have been great supporters of HISA, even though sometimes they felt like our rules weren’t right,” Roach said. “Early on, they felt like we needed that (30-day) rule in place. They brought it to our attention numerous times and ultimately it gets vetted by the Racetrack Safety Committee and it’s put into the new rules. 

“Now, my recollection is we also had people that didn’t like the rule. They made their comments. And then the committee reviewed those comments as well before the rule was (sent to the FTC for approval). That’s a perfect example of this process.” 

Strength of uniformity

Foreman is proud of the improvements the Mid-Atlantic safety effort put in place but he notes that uniformity in that group was elusive. He said that pure peer pressure wasn’t going to get it done and it needed to be mandated.

“One of the biggest frustrations was we knew in the Mid-Atlantic that safety programs work but we couldn’t mandate rules,” Foreman said. “We could tell a jurisdiction that everybody else is doing it. Why aren’t you doing it? And it would be, ‘Well, the horsemen are lobbying the racing commission. They don’t like this. They don’t like that. The track says they can’t afford this. They can’t afford that. We don’t have enough money for an equine medical director or for veterinarians to do the pre-race examinations.’ 

“Every year we used to do a peer review. We looked at what every jurisdiction was doing in terms of the list of things that we thought needed to be done. We would just keep a checklist of how everybody’s doing and you could see which states were falling behind and which states were doing it,” Foreman continued. “Everything was voluntary. (Under HISA) just the fact that you got a safety program that’s mandated in jurisdictions that didn’t have one before helps. In those jurisdictions you’ve upped the standards on practices such as prerace examinations, mortality review, and workout requirements.

“It’s a rough science, but clearly it looks like the breakdown rate, the fatality rate, has been coming down post-implementation of HISA.”

Roach, a former vice chairman of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, acknowledges the great improvements in the area of safety under the state-to-state approach but he also said there were significant holes in that net. He noted that several racing jurisdictions did not have pre-race inspections until HISA required that standard throughout the country.

Foreman has a number of concerns about HISA’s regulation of anti-doping and controlled medication, but on the safety side—while he’d still like some tweaks to the standards on claiming rules—he says all and all, safety seems to be better under HISA.

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