This Week’s RCI Annual Convention: Bold Reform or the Same old, Same old?

When I first read Belinda Stronach’s Open Letter about the Future of Thoroughbred Racing in California, I was immediately drawn to one particular point. It wasn’t the ban on Lasix. Nor was it the ban on the use of the crop for whipping horses. In fact, it wasn’t any particular reform.

It was a point that Ms. Stronach made that I’ll distill to one word.

Resolve.

Here is the quote from Ms. Stronach’s Open Letter:

We will be continuing our daily conversations with industry stakeholders to further define these transformative guidelines. But make no mistake: these changes will be implemented. The time to discuss “why” these advancements must take place is over. The only thing left to discuss is “how.”

That’s right. Not “why” but “how.”

The question “when” was not an issue. The reforms would be effective immediately.

This week racing regulators across the U.S. and beyond are meeting in Arcadia, California, for the annual Association of Racing Commissioners International’s (RCI) Racing Integrity and Animal Welfare Conference. Happenstance is bringing regulators to the epicenter of one of racing’s most high profile tragedies in recent memory — Santa Anita Park. Most likely, anyone who is reading this knows that the track has suffered 22 horse fatalities since December 2018.

How will regulators respond?

They already have a blueprint. It’s The Stronach Group’s reforms. RCI’s game plan coming out of this week’s conference should be to have all the Stronach reforms implemented in all states by not later than January 1, 2020 — if not sooner.

If Santa Anita can make these reforms a reality in a matter of a few weeks, then regulators working with industry stakeholders can do the same by the end of the year. That would mean, of course, that the normal pace at which regulators typically operate will need to be accelerated. It would also mean that individual racing commissioners understand and promptly respond to this unique opportunity to remake the Sport of Kings to be suitable and proper for a 21st century audience.

Admittedly, the new reforms in place at Santa Anita have just begun to be implemented. All eyes will be watching the rollout of these reforms. It will be a learning experience for all affected. By the conclusion of the race meet, which ends June 25, 2019, we all should have a blueprint for an effective rollout to be applied in individual states.

Fortunately, the nature of the new reforms is such that some of the usual impediments to progress, such as cost and the need for future study, do not apply, at least to any significant degree, to the Stronach reforms. In other words, there should be no excuses and hand wringing by regulators.

It takes only resolve.

Below, I’ve listed the Stronach reforms as provided in the open letter along with my comments on what is required of regulators to ensure implementation.

Banning the use of Lasix.

Resolve.

Increasing the ban on legal therapeutic NSAIDS, joint injections, shockwave therapy, and anabolic steroids.

Resolve.

Complete transparency of all veterinary records.

Primarily resolve, although some additional cost in personnel will be necessary to track and review records. Also, there might be individual state statutes that run contrary to this reform, because it would involve the confidentiality of veterinary records.

Significantly increasing out-of-competition testing.

This initiative is meaningful in the broader context of the racing industry as a whole but is likely not a major reform for California. That is because the California Horse Racing Board is one of the leaders in the sport in the volume of out-of-competition tests performed.

Increasing the time required for horses to be on-site prior to a race.

Resolve.

A substantial investment by The Stronach Group in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.

Thank you, Ms. Stronach.

Horses in training are allowed therapeutic medication only with a qualified veterinary diagnosis.

Resolve.

Use of cushion crop (whip) should be used only as a corrective safety measure.

Resolve.

So, there you have it. Show some courage and the job will be done.

Unfortunately, the RCI and its members have most often shied away from bold reforms. They prefer achieving a consensus before considering action on an issue. This approach is ideal — if it works. The RCI, and its members, however, usually cannot make it work. The parties most affected — like the trainers, veterinarians, and jockeys — strive to protect the status quo. 

So, when trying to achieve a consensus, the party most affected has what amounts to veto power on any reform. What often happens is that after lengthy delays the trainers, veterinarians, and/or jockeys grudgingly make minor concessions. A watered-down rule is then passed. Some hail the new rule as reform, while most industry insiders know better.

So, all eyes are now on the regulators.

Don’t dilly-dally.

January 2020 will be here in the blink of an eye.

 

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