The Thoroughbred racing industry, through a new alliance of racetracks and horsemen's groups, promised Wednesday a wide range of reforms and appointed former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson to monitor them.
The changes are designed to address fan outrage, which has risen sharply after the death in the Kentucky Derby of second-place finisher Eight Belles and the death two years ago of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.
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"I sense a will to change in this industry like I have never seen," said Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. "The fans are demanding it."
"People want to make sure horses are safe," said Thompson, who said he owned a share of 2006 Kentucky Derby runner Flashy Bull.
The reforms, which include a ban on steroids, were announced in New York by the NTRA, which is essentially a trade association that lacks enforcement authority.
The reforms will depend on voluntary compliance, with certification and accreditation to show that member tracks are meeting as yet undetermined targets. The alliance will play an advocacy role in pushing for uniform state regulations.
The certification process will take at least a year to get rolling.
Waldrop said the costs will vary from track to track; unspecified costs of monitoring will be paid by the NTRA.
The NTRA board of directors approved the slate of changes at a special meeting in September, according to a news release.
The racetracks, most of whom are represented on the board, agreed to implement the reforms by adopting "house rules" until state racing regulators can be urged to pass them.
The reforms are based on previous recommendations from other industry groups, many of whom already have taken steps to implement them. Some states, including Kentucky, and racetracks including Keeneland, Turfway Park and Churchill Downs, have adopted some of the changes, prompted by public outcry after this year's controversial Kentucky Derby.
Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown won while legally racing on anabolic steroids, according to his trainer. And second-place finisher Eight Belles was euthanized on the track after she broke both front legs shortly after the finish line. Eight Belles was wearing toe grabs, which are short cleats on front horseshoes.
The filly's death prompted a storm of fan protest and triggered a congressional hearing in June led by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville. Whitfield has threatened federal intervention if the racing industry doesn't clean up its own act.
Waldrop said he is less worried about congressional action than public reaction.
"We have to turn that negative mood around," he said.
Cost is an issue but, he said, "the real question we have to ask ourselves is how can we afford not to implement these changes."
However, making the changes by "house rules" raises questions about the ability of a private entity to enforce regulations. While tracks can take away a trainer's stalls or deny a horse entry into a race, it isn't clear that they can conduct drug testing beyond what state law requires or publicize their findings to the public or other jurisdictions.
Waldrop admitted this is a gray area, but he said the market will reward compliance.
"If you are not accredited, you will lose market share," he said. "If a track can't be accredited, it raises questions about whether that track should be operating."
Thompson, former Health and Human Services secretary and a former 2008 Republican presidential candidate, will be independent counsel for the new NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance.
A partner in the Washington law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, he will conduct a continuing review of the implementation of the reforms and provide an annual "independent and public assessment," according to the news release.
Waldrop said the firm has been retained by the NTRA at a cost of "tens of thousands" and that Thompson has a separate personal services contract.
Thompson said he will be independent and plans to issue a report card on the alliance's progress in six months, with a full report in a year.
The list of 49 racetracks and racing fair associations that have signed the alliance pledge includes Churchill Downs and its tracks (Arlington Park in Illinois, Fair Grounds in Louisiana, Calder Race Course in Florida), Keeneland, Turfway Park, Kentucky Downs, the Magna-owned racetracks including Santa Anita (where the Breeders' Cup will be held Oct. 24-25) and Pimlico (where the Preakness is run), and the New York Racing Association tracks (including Belmont, where the final jewel of the Triple Crown is run). Breeders' Cup, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the Jockeys Guild, and the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium also have pledged support.