Alliance Accreditation - An Idea Whose Time has Come

Last week, it was my pleasure to participate in The Jockey Club’s annual Round Table Conference in Saratoga Springs, New York.  They asked me to present to the conference concerning the role that the NTRA is playing through our Safety & Integrity Alliance to help bring about the considerable progress that the Thoroughbred racing industry is making on the welfare, safety and integrity fronts.  Even though I talk a lot about the Alliance, I was grateful for the chance to explain it to the attendees because it is still new and many people even now don’t fully understand its role or purpose.

I began my remarks by referencing the pledge that is the foundation of the Alliance:

The health and safety of our human and equine athletes and the integrity of our sport are horse racing’s top priorities. 

I reminded the audience that in 2008 when the Alliance was formed, the industry already had a firm grasp on many of the important reforms that needed to take place in order to raise health and safety standards for racing. What we lacked was a method for quick and timely implementation and a program that we could use to benchmark our progress. Here is where the Alliance and the accreditation process emerged as the solution.

Accreditation is common in other industries, especially health care and education.  Virtually every hospital in America is highly mindful of the importance of maintaining its accredited status because the loss of accreditation means reduced federal funding, fewer patients and reduced profits.  Likewise, accreditation not only assures a quality education but also provides colleges and universities with access to federal and state funding, engenders private sector confidence and eases the student transfer process.

But what is accreditation? As I explained, it is both a process and a status.  It is a process in that an entity or institution is evaluated to determine whether it conforms to a set of industry-established norms or standards.  The result of the process, if successful, is the awarding of accredited status.

That is why the first step in the Alliance accreditation process was the drafting of the Alliance Code of Standards.  The Alliance was able to create the necessary standards by working cooperatively with a broad range of industry stakeholders using current scientific research, recognized industry “best practices,” and recommendations from industry stakeholder groups.

The 2009 Code benchmarked standards in a number of areas including equine injury reporting, pre- and post-race veterinary examinations, post-mortem examinations of catastrophically injured horses, participation  in safety research, drug testing, and racehorse retirement and transition to second careers.  By design, the Code is a permanent work in progress - meaning that it will be modified from time to time to reflect new research and consensus on key areas of emphasis.  For example, in 2010 the Code was expanded to add wagering security protocols at the urging of horseplayers.

But establishing the Code of Standards was only half the battle.   

As I stressed to those in attendance, without the awarding of accredited status to compliant tracks, the Alliance Code of Standards would be nothing more than a list of aspirations and platitudes.  The Alliance grants accredited status to racetracks who don’t just talk about reform but who actually make costly but important changes to their equipment, facilities and operations and impose higher standards on participants through tough new house rules and improved regulatory oversight. 

To be accredited, tracks must submit an extensive application and undergo a rigorous two-day inspection by independent veterinary, track operations and security experts to confirm full compliance with the Code of Standards in all material respects. 

Today, 19 tracks racetracks comprising more than 60% of all Thoroughbred pari-mutuel handle in North America have been fully accredited.  They are: Aqueduct, Arlington Park, Belmont Park, Calder, Canterbury Park, Churchill Downs, Del Mar, Delaware Park, Fair Grounds, Golden Gate Fields, Hollywood Park, Keeneland, Monmouth Park, Oak Tree, Santa Anita, Pimlico, Santa Anita, Saratoga, Sunland Park (provisional), Turfway Park and Woodbine.  This is a huge step in the right direction. 

Because of accreditation, tracks and regulators in numerous states are now mandating the use of cushioned riding crops. Out-of-competition testing of horses is now a reality around the country.  The use of approved safety helmets and vests is now commonplace at many facilities. We are seeing a vast improvement in pre-race testing for alkalinizing substances. And almost all tracks are participating in the Equine Injury Database.  Without accreditation as a catalyst, these changes might never have been implemented.

Another benefit of accreditation is the constructive engagement that occurs when tracks, horsemen and state regulators work together to adopt permanent standards in the form of new or improved regulations. But the Alliance is driving more than regulatory change. It is recognizing those in the industry who are committed to doing what is right for the horse. 

To be accredited, tracks and horsemen must also help to fund new research into the causes of racing-related injuries. And last but certainly not least, accredited tracks and their horsemen are building bridges with local retirement and retraining facilities to take care of our retired racehorses.

Undoubtedly, there are still bars to be raised, higher standards to be achieved and many tracks to be accredited, but the critical point is this:  Accreditation is truly an idea whose time has come.

I left the audience with these final thoughts.

We have certainly made great strides with racetrack accreditations but much work remains.   It’s true that accredited tracks have committed significant human and financial resources to do what is best for our horses, our riders, our fans and our sport.  These tracks deserve to be tangibly rewarded for their efforts. Otherwise, we risk seeing some tracks continue to take the easier—and cheaper—road of ignoring safety and integrity issues in the hope that these issues will go away.  I can promise you that these issues will never go away …nor should they.

Eventually, Alliance accreditation must become the gateway to governmental funding for things like safety and integrity initiatives.  States will have to recognize accreditation as a basic requirement for licensure. These kinds of benefits and rewards are the very foundation of healthcare and education accreditation.  

But until these broader benefits materialize, I challenged every person in that room (and you as readers) to be a part of the important effort that the Alliance has begun. 

As owners and trainers, you can make a difference simply by voluntarily and independently committing to run some or all of your horses exclusively at accredited tracks. 

As horseplayers, you can do the same by voluntarily and independently committing to wager a higher percentage of your bankroll on races run at accredited tracks. 

With your support, we will continue to build on the successes of the past two years.  Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the only course of action that will ensure the long term viability of this industry that we all are so passionate about.

Thank you for your ongoing support of the Alliance.

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