Unprecendented Progress - by Alex Waldrop

It was just a matter of time.

Even though the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) is a month away, the spotlight is shining brightly on safety issues relating to Thoroughbred racing. Recent media accounts provide ample evidence that over the next two months, and perhaps for a much longer period, we are going to be under the microscope like in no other time as we near the one-year anniversary of Eight Belles’ tragic accident and the controversial events surrounding last year’s Triple Crown.

Expect well-organized, well-funded animal rights activists—the same ones who recently worked to ban dog racing in Massachusetts and fox hunting in England—to portray our sport and those of us who derive our livelihood or enjoyment from it as inhumane, uncaring, and greedy. When possible, they will seize upon sympathetic news outlets and legislators to advance their agenda. They will be joined by a small but vocal group of opportunists seeking to promote their own agenda in what has become an annual rite of spring.

At the same time, many sincere, well-meaning people—who are tired of current medication policies, who are frustrated that not enough progress has been made, or who support federal intervention as the only means to reform the industry—will find themselves in an odd marriage of convenience with these extremists and opportunists.

The better approach in my view and one we are striving to follow at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is healthy debate combined with transparency and collaboration. This is the process that led to the formation of the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance. Nonetheless, our customers, media, and even industry participants have every right to be skeptical about meaningful reform within our industry. Let’s be honest: We are a sport rich in tradition that historically has not embraced change. That is, until recently.

In the past 10 months alone anabolic steroids have been effectively banned in the racing jurisdictions representing 99.6% of pari-mutuel handle on Thoroughbred horse races.

Nearly 80 racetracks are participating in a new national injury reporting system that will provide comprehensive data for the scientific research our industry is proactively supporting to foster a safer racing environment.

National standards have been adopted with regard to horseshoe and hoof care that will lead to fewer equine injuries and greater health and safety for both horse and rider.

Virtually every major racetrack in North America—along with owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, regulators, and even fans—have pledged their support to the NTRA Alliance. A rigorous accreditation process, similar in structure to those utilized in other fields such as health care and education, is under way.

Four-term Wisconsin Governor and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson has been retained to measure the industry’s progress and ensure transparency.

What astounds me is the number of people in our industry who either don’t understand or refuse to acknowledge the unprecedented progress the industry has made on the medication front over the last several years. Race-day medications have been virtually eliminated nationwide. Testing protocols have vastly improved, and there is promise of even more progress soon.

The perceived lack of progress on the medication front is no doubt due to our industry’s lack of consensus on one single issue—the race day administration of Salix (furosemide). This is easily the single-most divisive medication issue in this industry and one that will not be easily or quickly resolved. 

Reasonable people can disagree about whether our work to improve safety and integrity goes far enough or has happened fast enough. These are legitimate questions. Important strides, however, have been made toward improving the health and safety of our human and equine athletes.

Rest assured you will read or hear a lot about what is wrong with our sport over the coming weeks. A less sensational, but more accurate, portrayal is one that acknowledges the strides we have made in the adoption of uniform policies involving safety and integrity matters. Ultimately, our customers will determine whether we are following through on our pledge to reform.

In the meantime, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of progress.

Alex Waldrop is the president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association

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