EDITORIAL: Racing reforms an encouraging step forward

Survival of horses, racing industry depends on action to improve safety

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

Supporters aren’t willing to give it up.

Opponents aren’t willing to let it go.

Those who think they can simply wish away a legal, multibillion-dollar enterprise with a rich history that employees thousands, supports local economies and is enjoyed by millions are fooling themselves.

And those who think they can maintain the status quo without making significant changes — and who think their industry is too big to fail — are also wishful thinkers.

The reality is that, for now, no matter how many horses stumble to their deaths at Santa Anita; no matter how much protesters shout at racing fans as they pull their coolers through the gates of the Saratoga Race Course; no matter what kind of negative press follows the industry’s safety record, labor practices and administration, the Sport of Kings will see another summer. And another summer after that.

Bet on it.

So it’s in the best interests of all involved, supporters and opponents, to do all they can to fix the sport’s problems — most notably the treatment of the stars of the show, the horses.

To that end, there appears to be encouraging progress being made on the industry side of the equation.

A new coalition of six leading thoroughbred racing organizations, including the New York Racing Association (NYRA), has come together under the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition in an attempt to do what the industry hasn’t been able to do in the past — agree on a set of nationwide reforms to improve safety for the sport’s horses and jockeys.

Recognizing both the urgency and complexity of the problem, the goal of the group is to create and implement industrywide guidelines on safety, medication, operations and integrity, and to make the industry more transparent and responsive. 

According to its website, the group plans to address everything from the quality of track surfaces to the fitness of horses to medicinal applications to veterinary care.

An initial proposed package of reforms is broken down into three categories — medical, operational and organizational.

Among the medical reforms being proposed are increasing the withdrawal time for certain drugs such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids to longer periods prior to races; prohibiting the use of bisphosphonates in training and racing; and prohibiting the use of multiple corticosteroids.

The new limitations on these painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs are to ensure that they don’t mask a potential injury or pain that could cause a horse to push beyond its capabilities and lead to injury or death.

The operational reforms — including unlimited random out-of-competition testing; daily reporting by veterinarians to regulatory officials; new voided-claim rules to keep unsound horses from competing and risking injury or death; uniform rules regarding riding crop use; and mandatory necropsies on horses that die from injury or illness — are designed to ensure better oversight of equine medical care.

And proposed organizational changes that include an electronic veterinary reporting system and centralized database; collection of racing surface data and merging of information with existing databases; standardized protocols for jockey health and wellness; a merger of information with existing databases; and a proficiency system for exercise riders are all intended to ensure best practices for data collection and reporting.

Will these reforms guarantee that no horses will be injured or killed on the track or die from illness? No. Should they be considered a complete and comprehensive solution to the industry’s safety problems? Not by a long shot.

Besides an outright ban on the sport, opponents have sought such reforms as full prohibition of riding crops; not racing horses until they’re at least 3 years old to ensure their bones, muscles and internal organs are strong enough to better handle the rigors of racing; banning more drugs; and improving stable conditions.

Those are not on the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition’s current list of recommended reforms, and are not likely to be anytime soon. 

So there will always be inherent distrust with the process and dissatisfaction with the solutions from animal rights advocates and others concerned with the sport’s safety record.

But it seems, at least from this initial offering of reforms, that the industry finally appears to recognize the need to police itself much more stringently than it has been — for the safety of the participants and to ensure racing’s long-term survival.

This is an encouraging step in the right direction.

But it should only be the beginning.

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