Jul 6, 2022 - Sports

Horse racing's new safety rules go into effect

Rich Strike winning the 2022 Kentucky Derby.
Rich Strike (R) winning the 2022 Kentucky Derby. Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

American thoroughbred racing quietly changed forever this weekend.

Driving the news: The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority's new safety rules went into effect on Friday — the first phase of a two-part plan to create national standards for a scandal-ridden sport.

  • New safety rules include a six-use limit of the riding crop (whip) during races, four fewer than jockeys were permitted at this year's Preakness Stakes, per Maryland's old law.
  • Cattle prods and other devices used to desensitize horses to mask their pain are now prohibited, with first-time offenders facing a 10-year ban.

The backdrop: HISA — formed after Congress passed the bipartisan Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act in 2020 — comes amid a time of intense scrutiny for the U.S. horse racing industry.

  • California's Santa Anita Park made headlines in 2019 when 30 horses died there in a six-month span. That brought mainstream attention to fatality rates nationwide.
  • In 2020, 27 people were indicted in a widespread doping scheme in which horses were "force-fed all manner of illegal and experimental drugs" that allowed them to run unnaturally fast and mask pain.
  • Earlier this year, renowned trainer Bob Baffert received multiple suspensions after his 2021 Kentucky Derby winner, Medina Spirit, had his victory stripped due to a positive drug test.
Medina Spirit in May 2021, shortly after winning the Derby.
Medina Spirit in May 2021, shortly after winning the Derby. Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

State of play: HISA is the first national governing body for a sport that featured 33,667 races across 34 states last year — a scope far too large for state-by-state guidelines, HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus tells Axios.

  • "If I'm a jockey, I might be running one month in Louisiana, one in Florida, one in Kentucky. They have to constantly recalibrate the rules in each state, so we think uniformity is a game-changer," says Lazarus.
  • Yes, but: Not every state racing commission is on board. Texas and a few others have raised their opposition in federal court.

Looking ahead: The second phase of HISA's plan involves new anti-doping rules, which will be put in place in January. That will streamline drug testing and standardize punishment for offenders.

  • It took 11 months for Baffert to receive a suspension after Medina Spirit failed a post-race drug test after winning the Derby. Under HISA, it would have taken mere weeks.
  • Plus: If HISA had been in place then, Medina Spirit may not have even been in the Derby. Baffert, with four positive tests in the previous year, would have already been serving a lengthy suspension.

The big picture: Greyhound racing has all but disappeared, largely due to animal welfare concerns. Horse racing may not be facing that same threat of extinction, but make no mistake: change was needed.

  • Lazarus hopes federal intervention is the answer, and that HISA provides the oversight and regulations needed for horse racing to thrive in the 21st century.
  • "This sport involves an animal that can't speak for itself," says Lazarus. "If we want a social license to operate, we need to be able to convince the public that animal welfare is our primary concern."

The last word: "[This] gives the horse industry a future," fourth generation breeder and owner Arthur Hancock III told NYT. "We were a rogue nation. Now we are not."

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