Town Hall Meeting: Can Horse Racing Solve Its Biggest Problems?

by | 02.24.2016 | 4:53pm

I attended Monday's “town hall” meeting at Gulfstream Park –- organized by the Association of Racing Commissioners International –- with a fair degree of skepticism.

Racing commissioners, after all, are the reason this industry is in such a mess, right? We have different rules in different states, dysfunction, and diseconomies of scale in regulating the sport.

But let's be fair: The current racing commissioners in various states didn't create this state-by-state regulatory structure, nor did the ARCI. They are simply trying manage through a system developed long before interstate simulcasting, modern medicine or sensitive drug screening.

Ed Martin, president of the ARCI, began the proceedings by comparing racing regulators to referees in sport. “People hate referees,” he said.

Can't disagree.

Martin then went around the room to the 20 people who attended this public event and asked what racing's biggest problem is.

I'm not going to identify anybody but Martin by name, not because I made any promises or deals but because it doesn't really add to the substance of what was discussed. There was someone there from the ranks of trainers (Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse), owners, jockeys, regulators, a few of racing's “alphabet soup” organizations, veterinarians, plus two racetracks (the host, Gulfstream Park, and a Standardbred track).

No one in attendance identified him or herself as a horseplayer or fan.

A general consensus was that medication was racing's biggest problem, or at minimum the public perception that medication is a problem. Trainers cited the fact that rules still are not uniform across state lines. Horsemen's organizations' reps and state regulators said public education was lacking, that too many people (including media) don't understand the difference between a Class 4 therapeutic drug and a Class 1 performance enhancer used to gain an edge.

“We have become our own internal enemy,” said one regulator. Another horsemen's organization representative said, “We are an industry famous for shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Yet another attendee asserted that education cannot start until national uniformity is achieved in both medication rules and enforcement of those rules.

One national organization's top executive said polling of industry insiders concluded integrity is the sport's biggest problem but that the general public is far more concerned about safety and welfare. “They don't even know about integrity,” he said, “but the general public will not tolerate athletes dying in competition.”

Getting racetracks to recognize safety and welfare issues has been a stumbling block, this individual said.

A jockey in attendance said whip reform has come a long way, particularly the riding crop being used today. “We aren't doing anything to educate the public about that,” the rider said, adding that tracks should have a display showing how whips have evolved from the old-fashioned crops to the current cushioned “poppers.”

The absence of structure – to regulate, coordinate and market the sport on a national basis – was another problem raised. That led to Ed Martin's second question: How do you create structure?

No one in the room said they thought federal oversight was the answer to that question (as opposed to the federal government appointing an agency, like the United States Anti-Doping Agency, to regulate medication rules).

There was support for the concept of a multi-state compact to create a regulatory structure, but that has been on ARCI's drawing board for years with little to no progress to show.

One suggestion floated was a “major league” formed by the racing associations in the largest markets: Churchill Downs Inc., Del Mar, Keeneland, New York Racing Association, The Stronach Group, and Woodbine. The league would develop its own set of rules, scheduling and marketing programs and work with the various state agencies when necessary for approval.

An attorney in the room, however, said the “major league” concept had anti-trust ramifications.

Another idea was to have state racing commissions use the Interstate Horseracing Act as a “hammer,” forcing non-compliant states to adopt uniform rules and programs or run the risk of having their outgoing simulcast signals cut off. Example: If a racing commission in State XYZ has not approved “model rules,” and it is the consensus of commissioners in State ABC that the “model rules” are vital, the latter commissioners may elect to block State XYZ's simulcast signal from entering State ABC by not approving the contract for simulcast wagering. Other states could join in, without fear of anti-trust lawsuits, the proponent for this idea said.

Of course, such action would not take horse racing's customers into consideration.

This was the second in a series of ARCI-organized town hall meetings, the first taking place at Santa Anita in January.

I left the meeting feeling less skeptical than before, at least as far as the intent or sincerity of purpose of this gathering. Unfortunately, I also came closer to concluding that horse racing in the United States may – to use a term I learned from the late William T. Young of Overbrook Farm – have an unsolvable problem.

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