Lisa Lazarus walked around the backstretch at Belmont Park nine days before the final leg of horseracing’s Triple Crown selling as much as observing.
The CEO of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority talked with trainers, riders and other horsemen about the sport’s federally mandated new governing body that she has been tabbed to oversee. Lazarus was peppered with questions and complaints about the new rules that are about to become the national standard.
Once she explained what will change — and what won’t — the most common response Lazarus said she got was, “It’s nowhere near as bad as I thought it was going to be.”
One reason for that reaction at the Belmont? New York is among the states that already follow many of the safety regulations, which begin July 1, and the antidoping rules, which go into effect at the start of 2023.
Lazarus said the policies that will become federal law about four weeks after this year’s final Triple Crown race closely resemble what’s already in place in California, Kentucky and New York.
Now that Congress has passed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, the rules will be the same across thoroughbred tracks in the U.S.
“The biggest that’s going to change is uniformity,” Lazarus said. “Uniformity, really above and beyond: It’s going to be one set of rules for everyone.”
Unlike other sports, horse racing does not have a long-established national governing body, which would make getting every state and track on the same page. With an eye on cleaning up the sport, HISA is the closest thing to that.
Mark Casse, who is set to saddle Golden Glider in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday three years after winning the race with Sir Winston, said he and other trainers are still learning about what’s coming but is relieved rules will be standardized across all jurisdictions.
“It’s a guess everywhere,” Casse said. “You’re like, ‘What can we do here? What can we do here?’ We have a lot of the same rules. A lot of the rules are not changing. I’m just hoping that they can be better enforced.”
The seven rules that go into effect in July encompass jockey safety (including a national concussion protocol), the riding crop and how often riders can use it during a race, racetrack accreditation and reporting of training and veterinary records. Everyone in horseracing must register with the new safety agency by the end of this month.
Medication regulations, including a drug testing policy aimed at getting rid of doping in the aftermath of federal charges brought against 27 people in 2020 for what authorities described as a widespread international scheme to drug horses to make them run faster, take effect Jan. 1. Lazarus said her agency would take an extremely hard stance against banned substances that “should never be in a horse” with transparent processes and strict punishments, and “practical and firm” about therapeutic substances.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that anyone who’s involved in it, or the vast majority, love their horses and care about their horses,” she said. “So, there is genuine and, I believe, principled disagreement over what helps the horse and what doesn’t and what puts a horse at risk.”
Betamethasone, the steroid that can help horses’ joints, which 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for and prompted Bob Baffert’s suspension by Churchill Downs, is considered a therapeutic drug. It is different than the performance-enhancing substances trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro were charged with using.
Casse, who has been among those in the sport calling for stricter regulations, hopes HISA “can have a little better control and identify the bad apples.” A lifetime ban is among the potential punishments.
Lasix, the much-debated anti-bleeding medication that also works as a diuretic to cause horses to urinate and lose 20 to 30 pounds of fluid, which can increase their ability to run faster, will get a close look over the next three years. The new safety agency will start by prohibiting Lasix use on race day while allowing tracks to apply for an exemption.
The three Triple Crown races are in their second year running without Lasix. New York also bans it for 2-year-olds and in all stakes races.
“You almost don’t notice it,” New York Racing Association president and CEO Dave O’Rourke said. “That’s actually the best scenario. You don’t really hear much about it, which I think is great and says something about it.”
NYRA executive Glen Kozak is among those on HISA’s racetrack safety committee. O’Rourke said NYRA has been at the forefront of horse safety issues for a while other than appointing people to specific positions as part of adjustments to the new rules won’t have to change much to get up to code.
“A lot of these best practices — and we haven’t done this alone — now will be adopted across the industry, which we think is great,” O’Rourke said. “It’s great for the sport. It’s great for everyone that participates in the sport, specifically equine athletes and the jockeys.”
Lazarus said success will be judged by the rate of horse fatalities, which has been decreasing, and hopes the authority gains the trust of those in the industry and the general public based on the intense research that went into developing these policies.
“I think you will genuinely see a shift in culture over time because the programs are going to be too robust and the enforcement is going to be robust and it’s going to be national,” she said. “There’ll be a cultural shift once there’s a genuine recognition that doping will not be tolerated in horse racing. It just won’t be.”