Times-Herald (Vallejo)

Horse racing's new governing body in rush to starting gate

- By Beth Harris

LOUISVILLE, KY. >> With interest among the general public at its highest with the 148th Kentucky Derby coming up Saturday, horse racing is once again under intense scrutiny.

The industry has been rocked by scandal in recent years, including the disqualifi­cation of last year's Kentucky Derby winner, a horse doping conspiracy involving trainers and veterinari­ans, and the punishment of its highest-profile trainer.

The sport's seeming inability to police itself drew the attention of the federal government in 2020. The result is the Horseracin­g Integrity and Safety Act set to go into effect July 1.

The act will be implemente­d in stages, with the racetrack safety program starting immediatel­y. The antidoping and medication rules aren't expected to begin until early 2023, leaving states in charge for now.

“We have to do it,” said Tom Rooney, new president and CEO of the National Thoroughbr­ed Racing Associatio­n. “We have to have the same standards in every jurisdicti­on.”

Unlike the central offices that govern the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, the 38 U.S. racing states operate under patchwork rules that vary from track to track. Horses, owners, trainers and jockeys move frequently between states to compete. Locales honor punishment­s meted out elsewhere, but inconsiste­ncies can create confusion and make it possible to game the system.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is serving a 90day suspension imposed by Kentucky racing officials that will keep him out of the Derby on Saturday, a race he's won six times. The punishment came after 2021 Derby winner Medina

Spirit failed a postrace drug test. The colt was later disqualifi­ed.

East Coast trainer Jorge Navarro is serving five years in prison for his role in a horse doping conspiracy. He also was fined $25.8 million.

Trainer Jason Servis is set for trial next year as part of the same case. He has declared his innocence. Servis trained 2019 Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security, who was disqualifi­ed for interferen­ce during the race.

Navarro and Servis were among over two dozen people indicted after a lengthy FBI investigat­ion.

Despite such hits to the sport's reputation, there appears to be growing trepidatio­n in the industry over the prospect of sweeping change brought by HISA.

The program has already been challenged in the courts, with two lawsuits seeking to kill it.

In late March, a lawsuit filed by the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Associatio­n and a group of its affiliates questioned HISA's constituti­onality. It was dismissed by a federal judge in Texas and is being appealed.

The second suit filed in Kentucky by the state of Oklahoma and eight other states is similar to the NHBPA's suit. It has yet to be heard.

Whether the implementa­tion of HISA is a reaction to placate vocal critics or representa­tive of meaningful change is an ongoing debate within the industry.

Rooney, a former Republican congressma­n from Florida, believes training fresh eyes on the sport is crucial.

“Having a large group of people who are not horse people is a positive as long as they're not out to hurt the industry,” he said. “They've agreed to sign on to this board to help horse racing succeed.”

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