You don’t have to be a dedicated Thoroughbred racing fan to know it has been a tumultuous and controversial year for the sport.
“It’s in crisis,” said Tom Hammond this week, and the Lexington native and former NBC broadcaster is anything but the casual race fan. “I think it’s at a real crossroads.”
The question now is the one that has been asked before: Do the decision-makers inside the sport realize the seriousness of the situation?
“There’s no question,” Bill Thomason, Keeneland’s president and chief executive officer, said in a sit-down interview in his office on Thursday.
It’s a busy time for Keeneland. Its sales division is coming off a strong September Yearling Sale. Its racing division is preparing for the Friday opening of the Fall Meet. It keeps an eye focused on the 2020 Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland’s second stint as the site for the sport’s premiere event.
Plus, it has been working on what it sees as necessary reforms that will put the industry on better footing and restore the public’s confidence.
“There are some things coming in the next couple of weeks that you will also see,” Thomason said. “You’ll see the seriousness that the racing jurisdictions are taking for themselves and collectively for the industry as a whole.”
Thomason wouldn’t divulge specifics, but did acknowledge that one of the issues being addressed is the lack of uniformity among states with regards to rules and regulations. When asked about the call for a national board or even a racing commissioner overseeing the sport, Thomason paused before answering.
“There are different paths that are going on right now to find ways to create a structure that provides for uniformity around the country,” he said. “This patchwork quilt of regulations that we’ve got in America right now has got to change. We have got to find a way to create that uniformity and assure all the racing jurisdictions that care about the horses and care about racing and care about the sport, they are going to have to abide by those regulations in order to participate.”
This all goes back to what happened this past spring at Santa Anita Park in California, of course. Thomason was on a beach vacation when he received a call March 12 to chair an emergency board meeting of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. At that time, Santa Anita had ceased racing because of an unusually high number of equine fatalities. By the time racing resumed and the meet ended, more than 30 horses had died either in races or training.
Not surprisingly, that became a national story bringing negative publicity and protests, especially in California where PETA has a strong presence. To help address the situation, the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Pimlico and other tracks, announced new safety and medication regulations. Other tracks, including Keeneland and Churchill Downs, also proposed changes.
Examples: Moving from 24 to 48 hours the withdrawal times for non-steroidal drugs. Moving to a 14-day withdrawal period for the use of corticosteroids. The elimination of stacking those medications. The elimination of bisphosphonates, used to slow or prevent bone loss. “We don’t want to impede the ability of the horse to tell you it’s not feeling well,” Thomason said.
As for Lasix, used to prevent respiratory bleeding in horses, the drug is as controversial now as when it was first introduced decades ago. The plan is to eliminate the use of Lasix from 2-year-old horses within 24 hours of racing in 2020. It is to be eliminated from all stakes races in 2021.
Whether Lasix should be banned entirely is another matter. Thomason referenced the upcoming results from a recent Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation study that “is really groundbreaking for the industry. … The study shows that Lasix given outside of race day can be even more effective and even better for the health of the horse.”
The use of Lasix or other medications on race day has to stop, however.
“America is not going to accept race-day medications being given to an athlete,” Thomason said. “We are at a point in time when that is not in step with the rest of the world and we have to accept that’s not going to be acceptable to our racing public and has to be changed.”
To that end, Keeneland is already implementing changes of its own. Its dirt track has undergone what Thomason called “a complete rehabilitation, if you will” that had been previously scheduled. It has called for a fourth racing steward be added to deal exclusively with horse safety. Until that is approved, the track has added its own equine safety director who “will be performing all the functions that a fourth steward would do.”
Still, breakdowns are going to happen. As trainer Kenny McPeek said, as long as a Thoroughbred has sesamoid bones — “it’s a small joint or bone, and when a sesamoid cracks it’s a catastrophic occurrence” — the number of equine fatalities is never going to be zero.
“I think the industry as a whole works really hard on the issues that are even coming up now and have for a long time,” McPeek said. “If you go back to even Ruffian and Go For Wand and Barbaro, breakdowns have been a focus for decades. The problem, and it’s unfortunate, is that it happens. And it’s very, very difficult to avoid. Even the best trainers in the world have horses that get injured. It’s the most difficult, devastating thing we deal with, but it happens.”
But is enough being done to try and prevent it? That’s the public’s question. And will the changes matter? Are they too little to late? Is enough being done?
“No, I don’t think they communicate well the fact that we work hard to try to keep catastrophic injuries from happening,” McPeek said. “It’s a very, very thorough process.”
“I do see some momentum in that direction (of reform), but there are some holdouts,” said Hammond, who favors Congressional passage of the Horse Racing Integrity Act. “Everybody has their own little fiefdom — the racetrack, the owners, even the racing commissioners — and they’re reluctant to give them up. But you have to look to the good of the sport.”
Meanwhile, Santa Anita began its fall meet on Friday and will host the Breeders’ Cup in November. A push to move the event to another track was rejected by the Breeders’ Cup board.
“The Breeders Cup is going to be a real telling time because of all the trouble that Santa Anita’s had,” Hammond said. “If they are able to successfully pull off the Breeders’ Cup without any incident, I think that will be a checkmark with regards to the safeguards they’ve put in.”
“We supported that decision,” Thomason said of sticking with Anita. “California racing is hugely important to the sport.”
Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in California recently completed a safe meet in which the track implemented many of the safety reforms proposed by Santa Anita, reforms that are being seriously considered by the rest of the industry. With more to come.
“I think in the next couple of weeks you’re going to see some significant announcements that show the resolve that everybody’s got,” Thomason said.
And it won’t stop there.
“There are also times when you thought things were going to calm down. We don’t believe that,” he said. “There’s not a soul who thinks they’re going to wait this out. That’s not what Keeneland’s doing. That’s not what all of these people that we’re working with right now believe. This is a sustained effort and something that’s going to be ongoing.”
Keeneland’s Fall Meet
When: Friday-Oct. 26 (racing Wednesdays through Sundays)
Key info: Gates open at 11 a.m.; general admission is $5, and children 12 and under get in free; post time each day is 1:05 p.m.
Key dates: Fall Stars Weekend, Oct. 4-6, with 10 stakes, including five Grade 1 races.