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Jockey Club Round Table Focuses on Equine Safety

11th August, 23:41

Speakers pushed for support of Horseracing Integrity Act during Saratoga session.

Just a few miles away from a festive day of racing at Saratoga Race Course, The Jockey Club's 67th annual Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing brought several hundred industry leaders together Aug. 11. The informational session put a spotlight on the crisis the sport is facing in the aftermath of a Santa Anita Park meet that ended with 30 equine fatalities.

As speaker William M. Lear Jr., vice chairman of The Jockey Club, expressed in his talk, Thoroughbred racing is facing a situation that "threatens the very existence of the sport."

During the course of the two hour and 45 minute session at the Gideon Putnam hotel, a variety of pertinent topics were addressed by speakers, with equine safety issues topping the list as a major push involved support for the Horseracing Integrity Act that has been introduced in the United States House of Representatives and Senate.

"We are facing an existential threat. If our response to that threat is, or even appears to be, business as usual, we're going to lose," Lear said. "We will have no chance of fending off the same people that did away with the circus, that did away with dog racing in Florida, because they have their sights on us. ... the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Aside from the HIA, the first portion of the Round Table also addressed the need for a greater emphasis on the safety of racing surfaces, including a proposal for a new surface that can better blend the properties of dirt and synthetics; how to better handle crisis management; a talk by Valerie Pringle, campaign manager for equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States; and an announcement by The Jockey Club Chairman Stuart S. Janney III that the organization was backing a recommendation to eliminate the use of riding crops during races, except when needed for safety.

In the second half, the focus shifted to growth issues including television coverage and the impact of sports betting on horse racing, as well as a presentation on stewarding standards and how the U.S. should consider adopting the internationally accepted Category 1 rules for disqualifications. Finally, there was a question and answer session on the lessons to be learned from Australian racing with John Messara, owner and chairman of Arrowfield Stud.

"This has been a year like no other in the Thoroughbred industry. The fatalities at Santa Anita in recent months have battered our sport. If we didn't know before, we all now know what it's like living under a dark cloud," Janney said. "The health and welfare and safety of our equine athletes should always be the single top priority for everyone who makes his or her living in this industry, but that isn't always the case as we know all too well."

In pushing for support of the HIA, which has 137 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, Lear spoke about the dire need for uniform standards for medications on a national level.

"We all now know things have to change and prominent among them is the way we handle medication regulation in the United States," Lear said. "The goals of the Horseracing Integrity Act are simple and straight forward. We want the cleanest possible sport, the safest possible sport, and we want an even playing field.

"It is the universal public sentiment and universally accepted public policy in the United States that performance-enhancing drugs have no place in sports and when you add to that even the remote possibility that it is contributing to the death of our equine athletes, I think we all now understand what the picture looks like. The recent public outcry has only added a new sense of urgency to that which we have known for years. We have to fix our medication regulation system and when I say system, I put quotes around it, because what we have is no system. We have a patchwork, and a poor patchwork within all of the different states."

Dr. Nancy Cox, dean for the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the University of Kentucky, discussed safety protocols for racing surfaces and a need to scale up the current track safety protocols for real-time racing in this country, as well as a longer-term program to sustain the future of research and innovation in track safety.

Cox cited a need for more mobile testing units, as opposed to the single one currently in use by racing surface expert Dr. Mick Peterson. She called for four units to cover the regions of Florida/Louisiana, Maryland/New York, Kentucky/Illinois, and California. In response, The Jockey Club CEO and president James L. Gagliano said The Jockey Club has committed roughly $850,000 to that initiative.

Aside from proposing a new type of racing surface, Cox discussed creating a new combination of grasses for turf course and proposed a research program under the leadership of Peterson through an endowed professorship of racing safety, all in hope of mirroring the United States Golf Association, which provides help to golf courses across the country.

David Fuscus, president and CEO of Xenophon Strategies, detailed crisis management situations faced by other industries and stressed five necessary factors in dealing with major problems: ending it, engagement, transparency, taking responsibility ,and meaningful actions.

He pointed how the 27th equine fatality at Santa Anita May 27 led to 300 articles about the death in a three-day period that reached 90% of the population. He said the racing industry is not "scoring well" because of a failure to deliver a clear message that it understands the problems facing it and that it knows how to fix it.

"Due to fragmented efforts, the industry's response is cloudy. There's no unified narrative," Fuscus said. "The industry isn't engaged as a whole. From the public's perceptive there isn't a clearly communicated fix or even a consensus on the chief reasons for the spike in equine fatalities. We are a long, long way from meeting the first rule of crisis communications, which is end it.

"We need to engage as an industry, be clear in our actions, and show that we are capable of recognizing what needs to be done and have the determination to act on reform through broad coalitions. As painful as that might be, this industry needs broad coalitions to go out to the public. The HIA is a key thing. It addresses the issues head-on and agrees on something that can be communicated."

Pringle also spoke on behalf of the HIA.

"The reason I am here is that we help industries reform their animal welfare policies. The HIA is something our organization has worked on for the last several years and we believe it will be a game-changer for an industry we support. It will ban race-day medications. Horses will benefit from a national rule book for medications when going from state-to-state, and we support increased out-of-competition testing.

"The sport needs to stay as clean as possible and it's important to get rid of the people who are hurting the reputation of the sport. We are committed to working with the industry and the members of the coalition for horse racing integrity to pass the HIA. We are not one of the animal welfare crazies who are trying to shut you down. We want to work with you. We are committed to seeing this industry thrive."

While putting the 2020 foal crop at 20,500, Janney also announced two recommendations from the Thoroughbred safety committee. One calls for centralized, electronic storage of all veterinary treatment records and the other for the elimination of the riding crop for the encouragement.

"Consumer research conducted earlier this year indicates that making penalties stricter for the violation of rules regarding use of the riding crop received the most support among current and potential fans," said Janney, who mentioned how riding crops are not used in Norway. "The committee recommended the riding crop only be used to avoid dangerous situations involving horse and rider."

In response to the recommendations involving riding crop, Terry Meyocks, CEO and president of the Jockeys' Guild, said he was disappointed with The Jockey Club's stance.

"We're willing to work with the industry, but encouragement is important, not just to the rider but to the owners, trainers, and betting public," Meyocks said. "Jockeys have been saying horses are herd animals and they won't pass other horses without some form of encouragement."

Michael Mulvihill, executive vice president for research, league operations, and strategy for FOX Sports, detailed the network's interest in live sports programming and its work with the New York Racing Association in providing 190 hours of live coverage of Saratoga racing to 60 million homes through FOX Sports 2 this summer as well as about 400 hours throughout the year with an eye toward more than 500 hours in 2020. He explained how the television coverage has helped increased Saratoga handle by about $2 million a day and said horse racing could play a key role in the growth of the FOX Bets app that will be launched in states with sports betting.

He believes the future of racing as a television property is "bright."

"Horse racing can be an effective laboratory where we can try out new innovations that bring the fan closer to the event," Mulvihill said "Horse racing has a long and impressive history of using new technologies to enhance the fan experience and drive new sources of revenue, and in our FOX broadcasts we seek to carry forward that long history of innovative thinking.

"I also believe we can integrate horse racing into a broader gaming strategy by looking for ways to marry horse racing to our FOX Bet initiatives. I feel we have only scratched the surface of what FOX Sports and FOX Bet can do in horse racing, and we are actively exploring opportunities to deepen our involvement in the sport."

Bill Knauf, vice president of business operations at Monmouth Park, detailed the impact of sports betting at the New Jersey racetrack, explaining it netted a win of $10.5 million from Jan. 1 to June 1, with $7.4 million generated online.

"The sports bettor is typically a younger and more diverse audience who are mobile savvy," Knauf said.

He pointed out how night-time simulcast wagering at Monmouth has grown 16% during that same period and how sports bettors prefer fixed-odds wagering.

Kim Kelly, the chief stipendiary steward for The Hong Kong Jockey Club spoke about the use of Category 1 disqualifications by international stewards, which allows for a disqualification only if the fouled horse had a chance to finish in front of the horse causing the interference.

In the United States, stewards follow Category 2 standards, which allows a horse to be disqualified for fouling an unplaced runner at the back of the field.

"Consistency in decision making is essential," Kelly said. "Owners and bettors accept Category 1 as the fairest way to decide placing in a race in which interference occurs. Owners and bettors must be protected so they will continue to support racing rather than abandon the sport."

Other items mentioned during the Round Table were the expansion of America's Best Racing into a full-fledged digital media services company, which in the past year grew its followers by 6.3%, fan engagement by 69%, the URL click-thru-rate to by 257%, and digital reach by 83%.

In addition, a Jockey Club initiative to increase HD capabilities at racetracks has reached the point where TVG hopes to be close to 100% HD in 2020 compared to 48% in 2018 with The Jockey Club initiative contributing to more than 25% of the growth.

Also, through Equibase, an office of race day scheduling was created in mid-July. A McKinsey and Company report said that if racing could better schedule races to minimize conflicts, $400 million in incremental handle could be generated each year.

Equibase is also currently developing a simplified betting tool, which will enable users to choose risk level based on an expected reward.