NTRA report: Track participation in safety alliance 'disappointing'

Horses train on the new Polytrack surface at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 2, 2006. David Stephenson/Staff
Horses train on the new Polytrack surface at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 2, 2006. David Stephenson/Staff LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

Efforts in 2010 to accredit more Thoroughbred racetracks were "disappointing," according the sport's independent monitor. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance's annual report, released Wednesday, shows only five more tracks were certified as complying with industry standards.

So far, 19 tracks have been accredited, just short of the alliance's goal of 20 set for 2009.

"These results are disappointing, even considering the economic hardship facing industry participants," the monitor found. "This is particularly disconcerting due to the fact that 55 racetracks originally pledged their support of the alliance yet, as of the end of 2010, not all of them have participated in the accreditation process."

The report was prepared by Tommy Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Washington law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld. Despite the problems, Thompson said, "you have to give the alliance a very strong passing grade." He said the NTRA needs to do much more to make the alliance's efforts public but that it is "getting stronger and better."

"Fan involvement is probably the most important incentive," Thompson said. "Nothing's better than peer pressure."

With most tracks expected to seek re-accreditation and with more applying, Thompson said, he plans to have an increased presence in the review process in 2011.

Alex Waldrop, NTRA president and chief executive, commended Thompson and the monitoring team "for what is, once again, a frank and thorough report. The analysis recognizes economic challenges, spotlights many areas of achievement and points out several other areas where improvement is necessary in order to ensure the future success of the alliance."

Waldrop said the report's criticisms and suggestions will be top priorities for 2011.

The safety alliance was formed in fall 2008, in response to public outcry over the on-track death of Kentucky Derby second-place finisher Eight Belles and Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who broke down during the Preakness.

Despite the lack of racetrack participation, the alliance has made "significant progress" on other fronts, including wagering security and safety improvements at accredited tracks, Thompson found.

Churchill Downs, Keeneland and Turfway Park in Kentucky are accredited, but racetracks including Gulfstream and Oaklawn Park, both of which host major Kentucky Derby prep races, do not participate.

Safety alliance executive director Mike Zeigler said he expects eight to 10 more tracks to be certified this year. Zeigler said a major hurdle for tracks has been the cost of meeting accreditation fees.

Tracks that apply for certification must meet specific standards in six areas: injury reporting and prevention; creating a safer racing environment; aftercare and transition of retired racehorses; uniform medication, testing and penalties; safety research; and wagering security. Requirements include reporting of racehorse injuries, pre-race exams for all horses, setting up programs for retired racehorses, post-mortem exams of horses that die on the track, out-of-competition testing for difficult-to-detect drugs, and many others.

On Tuesday, the monitors highlighted safety improvements, including new rules governing medication, riding crops and safety vests, but said, "We remain concerned that there are safety issues that persist."

Thompson's report also found racing faced significant financial hardship the past three years, including huge declines in wagering and purses.

So the alliance created a sliding scale of accreditation fees to encourage smaller and less-profitable tracks to apply.

"Nearly 70 percent of annual nationwide pari-mutuel wagering handle is represented by the tracks already accredited," the report said. "However, for the alliance to succeed, broader support must be garnered."

The report found there is "no distinct mechanism available to compel tracks to seek accreditation," so many don't.

The alliance itself also continues to face budget problems, with only one full-time staff member.

For 2011, the report recommended that the alliance create enforcement mechanisms or incentives to encourage more tracks to participate. One possibility: getting state regulators or the graded stakes committee to require accreditation.

Also, the alliance must find more funding, including investment from other industry stakeholders, including horsemen, breeders, jockeys, veterinarians, the horse "aftercare" industry and others, the report said.

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