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Horse racing safety alliance sees progress

After one year of existence, Thoroughbred racing's safety alliance has made strides, but "much more needs to be done," according to the evaluation of an independent monitor.

In the report, released Tuesday to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance by former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, the effort gets passing grades even though the group has taken little action in areas including racehorse retirement.

"The fact they've set up an alliance is a giant step forward," Thompson said Tuesday. But the code of conduct must be continually re-evaluated, and more racetracks must be pressured to comply with those standards, Thompson said.

The review was released at the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program's annual Symposium on Racing and Gaming. The 47-page report was prepared by Thompson and the Washington, D.C., law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

"Based upon our review, there is a consensus that while many improvements have been made over the past year, safety and integrity issues in the industry remain," the report says.

Among them: jockey injuries and insurance; racehorse retirement; track surfaces; overmedication of horses; and general horse soundness.

Public comments on the alliance found significant concern about the use of corticosteroids in joints to mask pain and keep horses running; the racing of 2-year-old horses; and the slaughter of horses after their racing careers are over.

The report questioned whether the alliance, which has no regulatory authority, has enough teeth to be effective in the long term.

Money is a big problem. Thompson's review pointed out that there are "serious concerns that more resources are needed in the coming years."

The safety alliance grew out of reaction to the deaths of Kentucky Derby second-place finisher Eight Belles and Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro after high-profile racing accidents that prompted public outcry.

The major success of the first year of the initiative, according to the report, has been the accreditation of at least a dozen racetracks, which were evaluated for specific safety standards.

However, it found that the safety alliance lacks a method for maintaining compliance and said there has been at least one report of a track backsliding after receiving the accreditation.

The review found that there were insufficient incentives to get tracks to undergo the expensive certification process.

"We've got a lot of carrots but not many sticks," said Mike Ziegler, safety alliance executive director.

NTRA president and CEO Alex Waldrop and Ziegler said they were unaware of the problem at the unnamed track and that they first learned of it Tuesday. Waldrop said tracks must maintain their standards or face decertification.

But the report noted the alliance doesn't have the money to do surprise inspections, which hampers the ability to ensure that tracks maintain safety changes.

Accredited tracks include Churchill Downs, Keeneland and Turfway Park, as well as Churchill-owned Arlington Park and Calder Race Course.

By the end of January, the alliance anticipates having 18 tracks certified. But 55 tracks signed onto the safety alliance, and the report indicated lower-level tracks might need stronger encouragement to apply.

"The primary shortcoming and dilemma appears to be that many racetracks have yet to come forward to be accredited and that many of these tracks may not be doing so because they are concerned that they will not pass," the report said.

Waldrop said they have no intention of creating two tiers of tracks. "The intent is to raise the standards for the entire industry," he said.

Waldrop said that the alliance will build legitimacy as it reaches a critical mass of 40 or so tracks, which it aims to do by the end of 2010.

"This is a building year. Next year is another building year," Waldrop said.

According to the report, peer pressure might not be enough, and the alliance might need to sanction tracks that fail to get accredited.

"The peer pressure will start pulling others into line," said Gary W. Thompson of Akin Gump. But, he said, it might be necessary for horse owners and bettors to take a stand by not running or wagering at unaccredited tracks.

Also under discussion: removing graded stakes races from unaccredited tracks.

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