Controversy, Confusion, Care Surround Horse Racing’s New HISA Rules

Written By Paul Bergeron on July 7, 2022 - Last Updated on July 28, 2022
A group of men at a long table for a hearing on horse deaths at Santa Anita, which led to the federal regulation now known as HISA

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) officially took effect last Friday. So far, it has created confusion and controversy while also prescribing a greater level of care for thoroughbred racehorses. The Animal Wellness Action lobbied for HISA for about seven years before it was signed into law in 2020.

Some horseplayers anticipated that it could lead to more scratches, given veterinarians’ closer examination of horses required by the law. Others applaud the uniformity of regulations and post-race testing that could help the sport become cleaner — or at least detract from those considering doping.

What does HISA do?

Key aspects of the law include:

  • The creation of a uniform national standard for drug testing and enforcement.
  • Outlawing the use of all race day medication.
  • Requirement through the Federal Trade Commission to establish a national database where all horse racing deaths on the track and injuries will be recorded. (This is not yet established — it might not be ready until January of 2023).
  • Regulation standards for the use of the whip nationwide. Jockeys have until Aug. 1 to secure HISA-compliant riding crops. The one-month delay in the requirement’s implementation is because of supply chain concerns. However, the rules on the use of the crop take effect July 1. Crops are shorter versions of a whip without a lash.

WFPL 89.3 radio in Louisville reported last week that more than 30,000 people had registered as of June 29, according to a news release. HISA registration is a free, one-time process.

Of the 25 states the Authority oversees, 20 had reached an agreement to implement the new set of rules or were in the process of doing so.

Be sure to check the scratches

Racing analyst and nationally competitive horseplayer Mike Koblenz from Reston, Va., said he’s not surprised that existing authorities — such as the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) and state racing commissions — would criticize federal attempts to oversee horse racing.

“An increase in late scratches, especially those on-track where an authorized veterinarian sees some potential issue with a horse and orders the horse scratched, is a response to this legislation,” Koblenz said.

The volume of scratches at Belmont and Churchill — a small portion of which can be caused by licensing or regulatory issues regularly — did not appear out of the ordinary, BloodHorse reported this week.

Koblenz said that the racing industry has “become more vigilant regarding the safety of the horses, at least at the major tracks. This is good.

“Most horse racing observers agree that the industry requires a national governing body. The anti-doping and controlled medication protocol included in HISA is the type of thing that is necessary so that medication rules will be standard everywhere, as will the penalties for breaking protocol.

“But it’s hard to say if HISA will actually make an impact until we see how this plays out.”

Medina Spirit and failed drug tests

Doping dominated headlines following the 2021 Kentucky Derby when race day winner Medina Spirit was disqualified for failing a drug test and Mandaloun was declared the winner.

The executive director at Animal Wellness Action, Marty Irby, said the new law does apply to post-race testing. “One of the major provisions everyone supported was out-of-competition testing that can be done without announcement in a surprise visit to any given stable,” he said.

Medina Spirit was trained by Bob Baffert, whose suspension at many major tracks followed soon after the disqualification. Baffert’s home base is in California. Last week, his 90-day suspension handed down by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission — which is honored in all states — expired.

Baffert probably will return to racing next week at Los Alamitos, MSN reported. Then he’ll move down the coast to Del Mar for the summer meet.

He maintains about 40 horses at California track Santa Anita and another 45 or so nearby at Los Alamitos. Most of the horses in his care are younger.

HISA has widespread but not unanimous support

In an illustration of the broad industry support for change, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was supported by all three Triple Crown races (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes).

The effort continues to enjoy the support of the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity (CHRI), which includes the Jockey Club, the Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland Racecourse, the Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Association, the Water Hay Oats Alliance, and animal welfare groups like Animal Wellness Action.

The law grants authority to a board of directors consisting of nine members. Five of those members are independent of the industry. Four members are experts from the following sectors of the industry: owners and breeders, trainers, racetracks, veterinarians, state racing commissions, and jockeys.

“We hope that the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority created by the new law will remain objective and unwavering in their charge to stamp out the rampant doping in the sport and crack down with a fierce and heavy hand against cheaters and horse abusers that have snubbed reform and rigged the system for decades,” Irby said. “HISA is the industry’s last chance to convince the betting public that horse racing is a legitimate sport.”

Controversy and objection

Critics of HISA claim it creates bureaucratic red tape and additional costs without substantive policy changes that will improve safety.

The regulations have not gone without controversy and objection.

Josh Rubinstein, president and COO of Del Mar, told the California Horse Racing Board last month that the funding comes from monies that “otherwise would be distributed to purses and commissions.”

Elsewhere, handle appeared down sharply Saturday in Texas at Lone Star Park. Texas Racing Commission executive director Amy Cook did not approve of sending the track’s signal out of state this month in defiance of HISA oversight. The decision was backed by Lone Star and the horsemen’s group in Texas, Cook previously told BloodHorse.

The Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Associations, Inc., Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, Thoroughbred Owners of California, and Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association collectively issued a letter to HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus this week expressing significant concerns with:

“Racetrack vs Training Facilities; Lasix Prohibition for 2-Year-Old and Stakes Horses in Training; The Lists of Controlled Substances and Specified Substances; Arbitration; Contamination; Drug Testing of Claimed Horses; Stewards and National Stewards Panel; Retirement of Horses; Responsibilities of Veterinarians and Other Covered Persons; ARCI Penalty Multiple Medication Violation System; Reporting Requirements; Suspension of Horses; Multi-Owner Entities; Collection of Urine; Definition of Race Day; and Official Timed Works.”

Quarter horse industry opposes HISA

Irby said the American quarter horse racing industry continues to put equine protection and welfare last when it should be at the center of their enterprise.

The American Quarter Horse Association opposed HISA and maintains its pro-horse slaughter position. This shows they view horses as nothing but expendable commodities instead of sentient beings that can feel pain and suffering.

Earlier this week, two horses at New Mexico’s Ruidoso Downs were vanned off and euthanized.

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