(Originally published in the April 2, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
In Tom LaMarra’s online story “Horsemen’s Groups Assess NTRA Membership Dues,” Arkansas Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association president Bill Walmsley stated, “I think our board sees (the alliance) as more of an effort to generate good publicity than having all substance. I’ll probably get criticized big time for saying that.” He was correct. He is going to get criticized for saying that. Walmsley and his board are misinformed at best and perhaps even dangerously out of touch.
At my first meeting as a board member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association in 2008, I listened to a presentation concerning a recently conducted survey. The results were frightening. Core fans of horse racing were on the brink of being lost forever because of perceived widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs and overuse of legal, therapeutic medications. The safety of the sport for our equine and human athletes was sincerely questioned by more casual fans. Meanwhile, certain members of Congress wanted some answers—and fast ones at that—about what the industry was doing to prevent more breakdowns such as those of Barbaro and Eight Belles. Sure the industry could have used some nice P.R. at that point. But what it really needed was constructive and meaningful action on a national scale.
In response, the NTRA formed the Safety & Integrity Alliance. It was never envisioned as a “silver bullet” that would eliminate catastrophic breakdowns and drugs from the sport overnight. It was established to implement change across the industry with the active support of all stakeholders including every major horsemen’s organization. I believe the Alliance is the single most important initiative taking place in racing today.
A Code of Standards for racetracks was written and developed through consensus-based input from tracks, horsemen, regulators, veterinarians, jockeys, and fans. Accreditation based on adherence to these higher standards began the process of change at the racetrack level. The initial Alliance Code of Standards included a host of practices that were already in place in some jurisdictions—but utterly foreign in others. These practices included pre-race veterinary examinations; participation in the Equine Injury Database reporting system; padded starting gates; safety helmets and safety vests; adoption of model rules and testing methods for legal and illegal medications; and responsibility for equine retirement and retraining.
The Code of Standards is now updated on an annual basis to add more stringent standards as scientific research and industry consensus deem necessary. (In fact, the Code was just updated last week.) Consequently, racing will be better off in the future than it is now as the bar gets raised and the standards become more difficult to attain.
In the spring of 2008, industry leaders went to Washington, D.C., and told members of Congress that racing was going to make changes to right the ship. In 2010 when some prominent legislators asked what progress had been made since that hearing, the industry was able to point to substantive, nationwide safety and integrity changes that came about as a direct result of the Alliance and its accreditation process. And clearly there is more to be done.
We, as an industry, must not compromise when it comes to the health and safety of our human and equine athletes and the integrity of our sport. We should all take responsibility and ask ourselves why the tracks at which we race our horses or wager our dollars are not accredited. Or, better yet, we should actively support those tracks that have demonstrated to the racing community that they place a high value on the safety of our athletes and the integrity of our sport—those are the tracks that are accredited by the Alliance.
To my disappointment, however, it seems as if tracks with slots or alternative gaming in place represent a high percentage of the facilities that have shown little or no interest in the safety and integrity process. Putting aside the fact these tracks are arguably in the best financial position to implement any necessary upgrades, it makes me wonder just how committed to horse racing these venues really are.
I am comforted by the fact most of our industry’s stakeholders are caring, compassionate, responsible individuals who are united in their love of our sport and concern for its athletes—human and equine. The Alliance is the best way I know to bring these attributes to the fore.
People who criticize the Alliance often do so because they don’t fully understand its goals or methodology. But the only alternative to the Alliance is the status quo. I’m not satisfied with the state of racing right now nor are many people to whom I talk on a daily basis. If you want change, support the Alliance; otherwise, you are supporting the status quo—it’s that simple.
Antony Beck is president of Gainesway Farm and a board member of the NTRA.