LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The sport of horse racing can be traced back to ancient civilizations.
Saturday, the tradition continues as young thoroughbreds take to the track for the 148th run for the roses.
A lot has changed over the centuries and controversy surrounding the horse racing industry has mounted in recent years.
In 2018 and 2019, dozen of horses died at the track at Santa Anita.
Also, in 2018, Justify, a horse trained by Bob Baffert, won the Derby and went on to claim the Triple Crown but it was later discovered the horse failed a drug test in the weeks leading up to the Derby.
Then, last year the winner of Derby 147, Medina Spirit, another horse trained by Bob Baffert, was disqualified after a banned substance showed up in the drug test. He was later suspended for two years.
Our FOCUS team spent weeks talking to industry insiders to learn more about efforts to clean up the sport.
In 2020, Congress passed a bill creating Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. Starting July 1, the HISA is set to take the reins as the first federal regulatory body to set the standards for horse racing across the US.
As it stands now, rules vary from state to state.
While many debate the need and legality of HISA, everyone we spoke to agreed it is important to take steps to preserve the sport, the jobs the industry supports and to keep the horses safe.
The question ‘Is horse racing's legitimacy at stake in Derby 148’ was the topic of Louisville’s Forum luncheon in April.
“This is the race everybody in the world knows, you better make sure that you run a clean operation, and whether it was intentional or not doesn't matter,” Gene McLean, Louisville Thoroughbred Society co-founder, said. He was part of the panel at the luncheon. “If they don't learn, then the penalties become aggressively higher.”
Clark Brewster, Bob Baffert's Attorney argued it was unfair of them to take away the win from Medina Spirit because betamethasone was "appropriately administered.”
Even facing sanctions, Baffert’s attorney said, “Bob has always been a proponent of having centralized uniform rules, and Bob has always been a proponent of HISA.”
Dr. Mary Scollay said the health of the sport is tied to the health of the horse. She is an equine veterinarian with years of experience at the track and is now the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.
It makes sense that she is involved with HISA. “I am a member of the anti-doping and medication control committee, and we will provide guidance I believe on anti-doping strategies, identifying emerging threats, medication control,” said Scollay.
Her expertise will help shape the drug control side of horseracing, what's allowed, how much of it is allowed and when it's allowed.
Anti-Doping and medication control are just half of HISA’s two-pronged approach with the other being the Racetrack Safety Standing Committee, which will oversee standards to help protect the horse and the jockey. Those standards are set to go into effect July 1, and will include testing and data collection requirements that will inform future guidelines for track surface standards to optimize racehorse welfare.
“You do need to contemplate where the horse has been training, how that surface has been managed, what kind of medication the horses received, all sorts of things,” Scollay explained.
The rules on what medications are still being drafted.
“We have tried on our own for the last 30 plus years to come up with uniformity, and it's sort of been one step forward, two steps back.”
Right out the gate, HISA was challenged.
The National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) filed a lawsuit against HISA arguing it is unconstitutional.
“The private entity aspect of HISA gives grave concern for many folks,” CEO of HBPA Eric Hamelback said.
The group questions how members of private organizations can help structure this government authority.
This week HISA announced a partnership with Drug Free Sport International to help structure an independent anti-doping and medication control enforcement agency, known as the Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit.
“You'll see really clear and comprehensive and rigorous investigations that will ultimately help us to use the resources most effectively to really route out doping and route out any concerns about cheating, and then also to make sure with medication overages that we're protecting the welfare of the horses,” Lisa Lazarus, chief executive officer of HISA explained on a call with media on Tuesday.
The Judge ruled that HISA is constitutional, but HBPA has appealed that decision kicking it up to a higher court. That decision is pending. HISA is also facing another separate lawsuit.
“In the best interest of the horsemen, in the best interest of the horse, we want to make sure that this is an act that stands on solid ground,” Hamelback said.
Hamelback said horseracing is already doing a great job.
“99.86% of all races in the United States happen without a catastrophic event,” Hamelback explained.
FOCUS found that deadly breakdowns on the track are trending down in Kentucky, although there was a spike in 2018 with 36 deaths. There was also a spike in drug violations that year, although that problem has been decreasing as well.
“I would say the industry is cleaner than it's ever been because of the sophistication of testing,” Hamelback said.
The common goal, better odds for a better image.
“We want to avoid the avoidable,” Dr. Scollay said.
The race is still on to protect public perception and preserve the sport for future generations.
It's a sure bet that horseracing will not win over everyone but with the stage set, every first Saturday in May, there's a good shot.
“It's a grand opportunity to come out of here with even a bigger and brighter future, the sun will always shine bright on this Kentucky home,” Gene McLean.
Despite facing lawsuits, HISA's proposed rules on medications, including doping, will be released for public comment later in May.
HISA then expects to present a draft to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in July, with the hope that all rules and regulations will be in place at the beginning of 2023.