Four years ago at the annual membership meeting of Thoroughbred Owners of California, then-president Joe Morris said the TOC's board of directors was “100 percent against the federal government or USADA being involved” with oversight of Thoroughbred racing medication rules. Morris was referring to the Horseracing Integrity Act, federal legislation that would make the United States Anti-Doping Agency the responsible party to regulate medication policy, enforcement and drug testing on a national basis.
Last Saturday, Aug. 10, at TOC's 2019 membership meeting at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in Del Mar, Calif., current president and CEO Greg Avioli indicated the organization's position has evolved, though it still does not embrace the latest version of the Horseracing Integrity Act. Instead, Avioli said, TOC supports federal legislation that would “require other states to adopt California rules” – which were put in place earlier this year in the wake of a highly publicized spike in racing and training fatalities at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., last winter.
California's more restrictive medication rules, first proposed by The Stronach Group – owner of Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in Northern California – and later adopted by the California Horse Racing Board, are largely aligned with those recommended by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities.
Avioli said TOC has had “serious conversations” with other racing entities – including the New York Racing Association, Churchill Downs Inc., The Stronach Group, Keeneland, Del Mar and horsemen's groups – about a federal bill that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) “can get behind.”
That contemplated legislation presumably would set national standards but leave enforcement of rules in the hands of individual state racing commissions that currently regulate medication policy.
Not surprisingly, much of the TOC's annual meeting – which attracted nearly 200 members, a sharp increase from previous years – focused on Santa Anita and the ensuing fallout from the equine fatalities.
“We've spent a lot of time trying to keep horse racing alive,” said Avioli, a reference to the pressures from politicians, animal rights activists and the general public to shut the sport down.
“Thirty horses perished for 30 different reasons,” he said, adding that the condition of the racetrack during the cold and wet winter was a major factor. “The track was sealed and unsealed way too many times. The maintenance of the track was mismanaged.”
TOC chairman Nick Alexander used tougher terms.
“It was a colossal screw-up of epic proportions,” Alexander said. “The public wanted us shut down. The government of California wanted us shut down.”
“The reality is it was bad,” said Avioli. “The public has concerns. We had to change and we did change a lot,” regarding medication and safety policies. He said the industry's biggest challenge remains that “we've been wed to the way we do things.”
During a question and answer session, one TOC member asked why more isn't being done to push back against animal rights protesters, some of whom hung signs critical of horseracing on an Interstate 5 overpass the previous night.
“In the near term, TOC wants to avoid a ballot initiative (to prohibit horse racing),” said Avioli, who explained that the initiatives can only take place in even-numbered years. “PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has not come out in favor of a ballot initiative. We don't want to poke the bear too much.”
Pointing out that this was not just a California problem, Avioli said the Breeders' Cup and Keeneland have retained the same crisis management firm that helped the NFL deal with the concussion crisis in football. In a previous conference call with TOC members, it was revealed that The Stronach Group, TOC and a third organization, California Thoroughbred Trainers, separately hired crisis management consultants.
One thing Avioli said he's learned is that “the argument that horses love to run doesn't work” in swaying public opinion. Promoting therapeutic aftercare programs involving retired racehorses and military veterans is a stronger message, he said, as is putting forth the economic importance of the horse industry in supplying jobs for a largely Hispanic workforce.
Santa Anita, which cut back to a three-day weekly racing schedule this spring and summer, is returning to four days for its fall meet that culminates with the Breeders' Cup championships on Nov. 1-2. Del Mar has managed to operate five days each week this summer but will cut back to four days in the fall meet that follows Santa Anita.
Continuing to fill races in Southern California will be a challenge, Avioli said, because the Thoroughbred population has declined by 650 horses from one year ago, from 3,350 to 2,700, as some stables left the state when Santa Anita shut down temporarily in March.
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