“The days of permissive medication are over.”
So began the tenure of Dr. Gregory Ferraro, a former racetrack veterinarian and past director of the University of California-Davis veterinary teaching hospital, as chairman of the California Horse Racing Board.
Ferraro, appointed to the regulatory board earlier this year by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, was unanimously elected to the post at Thursday's scheduled meeting of the CHRB in Del Mar, Calif. Another Newsom appointee, Oscar Gonzalez, was elected vice chairman on a 5-1 vote. Ferraro acknowledged the work of the previous CHRB chairman, Chuck Winner, whose term had expired, and former vice chair and medication committee chair Madeline Auerbach, who recently stepped down from the board.
Ferraro and his fellow commissioners are under what he called a “mandate” from Newsom to improve the safety standards for California horse racing in the wake of widely publicized equine racing and training fatalities earlier this year at Santa Anita. While California tracks and regulators have initiated unprecedented reforms since March, Ferraro said there will be more changes to come, though they may be gradual and more difficult to enact. “We expect opposition,” Ferraro said, “but we intend to carry (the changes) out in the best interest of horses and jockeys.”
CHRB executive director Rick Baedeker, who recently announced his mid-2020 retirement, opened the meeting with his report to the board by listing a number of recommendations that are being forwarded to the governor's office.
Three recommendations, Baedeker said, will require statutory change Those are:
— Modification of confidentiality requirements when the CHRB receives notification of a positive drug test. The current regulations can mean positive tests are unreported to the public for months at a time, Baedeker said, as the split-sample and hearing process goes forward. The proposal is to permit release of the information within 24 hours of receipt of a positive test.
— Allocation of all license fees received by the state toward welfare and safety initiatives, including hiring of additional veterinarians and safety stewards.
— Exemption for privacy restrictions on veterinary records for horses, making access to them available to licensees other than a horse's current owner and trainer.
Other potential policy changes being considered by the CHRB, Baedeker said, include putting horses currently on a veterinary panel's “high priority” watch list onto the vet's list; new protocol for horses to be removed from the vet's list to include a requirement for digital scanning; a prohibition on racing or training on tracks modified by weather conditions; research of all-weather, synthetic tracks; a prohibition on corticosteroids and shockwave therapy; requirement for submission of 30 days of medical records for a horse at time of entry; increased out-of-competition testing; continuing education requirements for trainers and veterinarians; and a review of the CHRB's penalty guidelines.
One issue not addressed by Baedeker was revision in the use of the riding crop, which was on the meeting agenda and postponed until December at the request of vice chairman Gonzalez. Gonzalez cited the formation earlier in the week of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition by several racetracks and the Breeders' Cup and the intention by the coalition to propose national standards for riding crop use.
There were two riding crop rules under consideration by the CHRB. The first, sent out for a 45-day public comment period earlier this year, said the crop could only be used for “safety” purposes and allowed a horse to be disqualified if its jockey violated the rule. The second permitted jockeys to use the crop in the “down position,” tapping a horse on the neck while keeping both hands on the reins. The second rule also allows riders to “show” the crop to the horse.
The board conditionally approved Santa Anita's license application for its 2019-'20 winter-spring meeting scheduled to begin with its traditional Dec. 26 opening day and run through June 21. Twelve of the 104 scheduled race days are “flex days” that may be used when racing is cancelled due to weather or shortage of entries.
Ferraro said there are three conditions for the license. First, that no training or racing will take place during or after weather conditions have led to an “unsafe” track. What constitutes “unsafe” was not worked out and will be defined at the board's December meeting. Aidan Butler, representing track owner The Stronach Group, said data-driven parameters are needed to help carve that definition.
The second condition is that horses receiving corticosteroid injections in the fetlock joints are not permitted to race for a minimum of 30 days or record a timed workout for a minimum of 10 days.
The final condition is that Santa Anita raise the minimum claiming price to $10,000.
There were discussions about installing a synthetic track at Santa Anita, either for training or racing. Butler said outside of the meeting room that “nothing is off the table” concerning the various surfaces at Santa Anita (there is an inner training track, a turf track and an outside dirt track for racing) but that Stronach Group officials do not want to make a “knee jerk” decision. He added that current plans to not include resumption of 6 ½-furlong sprint races on the downhill turf course at Santa Anita. Races down the hill that cross the dirt track and continue onto the main turf oval were suspended last spring and all turf sprints now take place at either 5 or 5 ½ furlongs on the main turf course.
Russ Heimerich, deputy secretary of communications for the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency in Sacramento, was in attendance and told reporters that the CHRB was asked to submit safety reform proposals for a report to be sent to the governor's office Dec. 4. “There has to be some substantial changes in horse racing in order for it to survive in California,” Heimerich said. “The idea here is to make racing just as safe as it can be for the horses and riders and that may mean changing the way we think about medications.”
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