A Higher Standard - by Alex Waldrop

The health and safety of our human and equine athletes, and the integrity of our sport are our highest priorities. These fundamental principles will guide the newly formed National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance.

The formation of the Alliance is the culmination of several months of feedback received from virtually every segment of the industry, including fans. The reforms fall into five key areas: medication and testing; a safer racing environment; injury reporting and prevention; safety research; and aftercare of our retired racehorses.

Fifty-five tracks and every major horsemen’s association in North America have joined the Alliance. Many owners, breeders, horsemen, and jockeys have expressed their support, and a plan for enlisting added support is in development. Alliance members are aware of the significant financial costs the industry will incur by implementing these reforms. But to their credit, Alliance members have come to the realization that doing nothing would, in the long run, be far more costly.

Despite broad industry support of the Alliance and assurances that reform costs would not be pushed off on our customers in the form of higher takeout, I would speculate that overall fan reaction will range from cautious optimism to a healthy dose of skepticism. Should we be surprised? After all, many of our fans feel like they have seen this movie before.

Nearly six years ago to the day, a group of former students at Drexel University almost pulled off the biggest heist in the history of our sport when they manipulated the wagering data of the Breeders’ Cup Pick Six. The NTRA hired a high-profile individual, along with a talented team of security experts, to assess our industry’s tote system. The result was an outstanding set of recommendations to improve the industry’s tote infrastructure, many of which have yet to be enacted. In fact, six years later, we continue to operate under a fundamentally flawed assumption: that our customers will tolerate the changing of odds well after the horses have broken from the starting gate. In hindsight, we should also have had Mayor Rudolph Giuliani hold our industry’s feet to the fire until we enacted the important reforms his team recommended.

A series of catastrophic injuries in high-profile events, admissions of steroid use by some top trainers, skepticism of bettors after repeat violations of medication policies, and the economy have resulted in double-digit declines in our business in recent months. I am an optimist and one who believes our industry has many good stories to tell relating to integrity. In many respects, our drug testing is better than that of the Olympics. And I believe the overwhelming majority of our horsemen care deeply about the welfare of the horses from which they derive their livelihoods. However, to overcome current negative public perceptions of our game, we must act, and our actions must be meaningful, swift, decisive, and transparent. Those aren’t my words. They are yours—pulled from thousands of interviews we have conducted with our customers.

To this point, the industry response has been encouragingly on the mark. In a short period of time, important reforms have been identified and implemented. The goal of banning steroids from racing competition by 2009 is within reach and demonstrates the industry does have the structure to act uniformly and nationally. The Alliance will lead to further structure and uniformity, and an accreditation process similar to that utilized by other state-regulated industries (think insurance and health care).

What was missing, at least until recently, was sufficient transparency. Enter Tommy Thompson, a former four-term governor in Wisconsin and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Washington, D.C., law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Gov. Thompson, a former Thoroughbred owner, and Akin Gump have been given the task of providing periodic public updates and an annual report card on the industry’s efforts to implement safety and integrity reforms.

The governor’s lone request was that he would have the independence to call it as he sees it. We agreed wholeheartedly and asked that he hold the industry accountable. It is my hope that in the not-too-distant future we will look back to Oct. 15, 2008, as the day the industry began to hold itself to a higher standard. Our customers, our human and equine athletes, and the hundreds of thousands of honest, hard-working individuals who make their living in this sport and industry deserve nothing less.

Alex Waldrop is CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association

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