BY LISA LAZARUS
For as long as horses have been competing in sport, civil societies have recognized that the competition should not be influenced by medication. This recognition was not only to keep competition fair, but also to keep horses safe.
Luckily we no longer need to worry, like Euripides did in 480-406 BC, that horses might be fed human flesh to make them run faster and be more savage! Nor do we have to worry that the use of “hydromel” (alcohol) in horses could result in our crucifixion, as they did in Roman times. That said, stakeholder groups all over the world continue to grapple with how to best protect horse sport against doping threats. Whenever or wherever there are horse injuries or deaths, these debates emerge with a renewed intensity.
This been the case lately in the USA following the high number of equine deaths at the Santa Anita racing track. The Horse Racing Integrity Act 2019 (HIRA) is the latest legislative attempt put forward as a potential solution to public concerns about equine welfare in horse racing. We look at the details here because they can be applied to any country trying to figure out how best to lend support to a horse sport ecosystem that is at risk due to doping concerns.
What is the Horse Racing Integrity Act 2019?
The HRIA was presented to the United States Congress by Rep. Paul Tonko and Rep. Andy Barr to introduce measures that create a safer environment for horses, jockeys and drivers. The bill intends to create a private, independent horse racing anti-doping authority and establish a uniform national standard for drug testing in horse races (currently every state has its own laws and systems.) The HRIA would ban the use of all medications within 24 hours of a race and be overseen by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). This is basically a proposal to place control for all equine anti-doping in racing with one national organization overseeing it, which is similar to the model for human athletes which is overseen by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) in the Olympic Sports.
Why is it important?
Recent incidents at Santa Anita, one of horseracing’s most celebrated tracks, have called the safety of horseracing into question. There have been 22 racehorse deaths since December 2018, which has resulted in a ban on the use of drugs and whips on racing days. Investigators are uncertain as to the cause of this spate of deaths, though factors could include heavy rains, a depleted horse population and impatience on the part of trainers and racetrack officials. Regardless of the exact cause, it is clear that a safer environment for both horses and riders is needed and all stakeholder groups seem to be rallying around that objective.
Santa Anita’s spike in horse fatalities has given rise to calls for change and garnered some support for the HRIA. However, one must question whether the HRIA is a rushed solution to deal with public outcry as opposed to a rigorous and balanced attempt to fix the problem. In fact, it seems like some critical voices from key stakeholders have not been consulted and that could weaken the HRIA prospects for success. Clearly something needs to be done to deal with the issues in the USA and to deliver a uniform system. However, it should be well thought out, heavily consulted amongst all relevant stakeholder groups, and built to be enduring to take the sport to the next level. It seems like the HRIA is a good start, but may fall short of those crucial objectives.
How are other equestrian sports regulated?
The HRIA ethos or objective is consistent with the Fédération Equestre Internationale’s (FEI) Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Regulations. The FEI regulations prohibit substances that undermine the spirit of the sport. The regulations were created with their values of integrity, fair play and safety in mind.
Comparisons can be drawn between US horseracing and Endurance riding, an FEI discipline. US Racing is facing many of the same issues as Endurance riding with respect to public concerns about horse welfare. To deal with horse welfare risks in Endurance, the FEI established a Temporary Committee to assess the issues. The Committee have consulted with multiple stakeholder groups and undertaken a full assessment of the rules and regulations and have proposed a sixteen-point plan to improve the sport for the better – with good horsemanship at the forefront of all changes.
US Racing could take its lead from the FEI’s Temporary Committee on Endurance and carefully assess issues before providing recommendations and proposing legislation. While the HRIA is a good start, a more considered legislative approach might have a better chance of success and be able to withstand challenges and the test of time. Only time will tell what will eventually happen, but change is inevitable. It is up to the key sport stakeholders to make sure it is the right change.
Lisa Lazarus IS former FEI General Counsel and Head of Equestrian Services at Morgan Sports Law which represents athletes. She can be reached at [email protected]