Commentary: Uniform Rules In Horse Racing Won’t Happen Without Compromise

by | 08.19.2019 | 1:09am

For as long as I've covered horse racing, I've been asking people to define their biggest concern about the sport. For my entire career, the top two, conveniently dovetailed answers have been the same: central regulatory authority and uniform rules. Those who want a commissioner of horse racing usually want one so they will impose and enforce uniform rules.

The Santa Anita crisis (and I think we can all agree that it's a crisis) from this spring has added a sense of urgency to racing's to-do list. A central authority and uniform rules no longer seem like something we should get around to eventually, but instead one in a host of things we have to move on fast if we want to have some sort of response to the continued public relations bleed that gets worse every time a horse goes down in racing or training. While in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., this month, I heard more than ever about uniformity and the way forward – primarily from proponents of the proposed federal legislation known as the Horseracing Integrity Act. The Jockey Club Round Table featured lots of well-crafted mentions of the benefits of the legislation, including a segment from William Lear Jr., vice chairman of The Jockey Club, who I thought summed up the history of our sport's own attempts at uniform rules better than anyone else I've heard so far:

“We have a patchwork, and a poor patchwork, within all of the different states,” said Lear. “Now, we have understood that, we have tried — federal legislation is not the choice of first resort for us. We tried with an interstate compact and the leaders of the industry, including most of the organizations you would love to see around the table working together, The Jockey Club, the American Quarter Horse Association, the United States Trotting Association, RCI, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, the NTRA, Keeneland, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, the National, believe it or not, HBPA, worked together in 2009 and 2010 to create the Interstate Racing and Wagering Compact. Kentucky passed it. New York passed it in one house of the legislature. Virginia tried to pass it, but didn't effectively do so. So like that failed motion under Roberts Rules of Order, that compact died for lack of a second. Now they're trying again in the Mid-Atlantic Region and I commend them for the effort.

“But the reality is the Achilles heel of interstate compacts is the set of conditions you typically have to put into them to get them passed in the first place. And those are like individual rule opt outs. That was a problem with the first compact. Meaning any state can say, well, the rest of you guys put that in place but we're not going to do it. Or super, super majority voting requirements. The Mid-Atlantic compact has an 80 percent rule. That means one or two states have an effective veto. Or the other thing that both of the compacts had, the ability of a state to withdraw at any time for any reason with or without cause.”

Then there was the National Uniform Medication Program – another good idea, but one that hasn't taken off as universally as it needed to in order to work.

So imagine then, how disheartening it was to hear from Ed Martin, president and CEO of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) before one of many industry meetings in Saratoga recently. Martin took a few minutes at the start of a meeting of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities' International Harmonisation of Racing Rules Committee to share his thoughts on harmonization.

IFHA and RCI work similarly, Martin said, in that they each set best practice guidelines or model rules they recommend their members take back to their jurisdictions. In both cases, he did not point out, those suggestions are simply suggestions and neither group can force their members to adopt those requirements. IFHA and RCI are parallel in some ways, he said. True enough.

But then…

“I would just ask that the IFHA consider the voices of the individual racing regulatory authorities,” Martin said, referring to the individual state commissions who are members of the RCI. “They presently don't have a vote.

“My only point is these are two parallel organizations … in terms of international harmonization, I think that is the goal. I don't believe we're opposed to that. But there needs to be greater involvement of the individual voices in North America in that body. If there's a concern that somehow a policy of the IFHA has not been honored by a racing regulatory authority in the U.S., it might be because that regulatory wasn't part of that change and didn't agree.”

Since Martin did not, that I could hear, follow this statement with any kind of sarcastic laughter, I am left to assume he really believes two things, or really wanted his audience to think he believes them.

First, he really thinks that the IFHA should add 32 new members – one representing every state racing commission in the United States. According to its website, the IFHA presently has 67 horseracing authorities who are members of the organization. The U.S. is one of several countries with two organizations representing it – Breeders' Cup/NTRA and The Jockey Club.

Apparently, Martin believes the organization should increase its membership by nearly 50 percent so every single state racing commission could send its own representative to meetings. In his world, it seems, the North Dakota Racing Commission, which oversees a total of 12 racing dates in 2019, should be accorded the same status as the British Horseracing Authority. It's like suggesting each state governor should have his own seat in the United Nations.

Secondly, Martin's understanding of harmonization seems to be upside down, at best – which is worrying for someone running an organization based on the hope its members will one day take on its model rules. His message essentially seems to have been, “My members want international uniformity until they encounter something they don't like. Then, they like having the power to go their own way.”

What exactly does he imagine harmonization is going to look like in horse racing? Everyone holding hands and skipping through daisy fields, blithely having their cake and eating it, too? Each and every racing jurisdiction is not going to get everything they want here, because on some issues, different authorities clearly want very opposite things. (Lasix/no Lasix is a pretty black-and-white example, but there are hundreds more colorful ones.)

And by the way, what is it about that “we want what we want” attitude that should make the IFHA want to hear more from us? It's the very philosophy that already has some international authorities looking down on the American inability to quit in-fighting.

This kind of thinking is exactly what got us to this moment, years into our refrain of “What we need is uniformity, and we need it yesterday.”  I spoke with a trainer last week whose name was among those who have recently come out in support of the Horseracing Integrity Act. I asked him what he thought the racing industry needed to do to get out of this crisis. Passage of the bill was just one thing in a long list of things he hoped to see change in order for racing to escape the doghouse. (And in case you're still not convinced it's in the doghouse, I'd remind you of a statistic presented at the Round Table by crisis management expert David Fuscus: the spring death spike at Santa Anita prompted 20,000 news stories about horse racing and its issues. The 27th fatality alone sparked 300 articles in three days, which Fuscus estimated appeared in publications with the power to reach 90 percent of the American public.)

“I don't agree with everything in it,” the trainer told me. “But it's a good start. And something needs to happen.”

That's the thing – very often, uniformity doesn't happen without compromise. At some point, people have to put away their soapboxes and be willing to accept that they'll have to live with something they don't like in order to get something they want – the same set of rules in every jurisdiction.


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