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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


By Barry Irwin — The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) is not scheduled to begin operations until July of next year, but with release of the initial guidelines issued for public consumption last week and any number of Op/Ed pieces appearing in industry trade publications, the direction of the Authority that will steer the ship seems to be given plenty of helpful hints for its future navigation.

As the one who got the ball rolling in a 2004 Op/Ed in The Blood-Horse by urging industry members to consider a way of hiring the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to oversee drugs in horseracing, I must at this early juncture in the start-up of the Authority register my fears regarding the ultimate success of the new entity and its potentially sweeping changes.

Germination for wishing to get USADA involved in the struggle to rid cheaters from the game was to use CEO Travis Tygart and his team to devise a plan to form an investigative unit capable of discovering through traditional and new-wave policing methods which designer and human drugs were being used to tilt the playing field in North American racing.

If the world of international sport had learned one thing from the 2002 Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) it was that testing was best used not to apprehend suspects but to confirm that they were cheating. The gold standard in catching the crooks was by finding the actual illegal substances first, then developing a test and using that test in the future to nail the bad guys. Testing without knowing what one was testing for was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Good old-fashioned cop grunt work and sophisticated FBI-style surveillance is required for the best results. In the eyes of those individuals who formed and drove the Water Hay Oats Alliance, it was foremost in mind that Tygart would use his agency’s skills to offer relief to racehorse owners who played the game straight and true.

However, other initiatives, introduced by other stakeholders with alternative agendas, have gotten in the way and now threaten to derail the Authority from their original appointed rounds. And adding further insult to injury, everybody with an agenda is making noises about the Authority widening their sphere of influence by tackling such areas as pari-mutuel wagering.

The last thing HISA needs is to be accused of overreach by encompassing an agenda that goes too far afield from its original mandate. HISA was never envisioned as a so-called “league office” or end-all and be-all to govern the entirety of racing.

HISA is basically divided into two aspects of racing: integrity (preventing cheating) and safety (protecting the horse). While I am extremely interested in protecting the welfare of racehorses, I was personally disappointed in its inclusion in the final legislation, as I thought it could be handled better outside the confines of the law and because it detracted from the focus on cheating with drugs.

I daresay that very well may have been the intention of those proposing and supporting the safety element of the legislation. But I fully understand that with any sort of seminal legislation there must always be compromise and I am positive that without the safety aspect, Churchill Downs would never have been able to use its influence to convince Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell to back the bill.

In reviewing the Authority’s releases so far and in reading reports in the media as well as interviews with key members of the Authority, it seems likely to me that testing for illegal substances is being given too much weight, as opposed to investigations. If this turns out to be the case, it would be a misguided, potentially detrimental and disheartening.

I understand why the “safety” advocates pressed so hard to have their initiative appear to be on an equal footing with “integrity.” By shifting the focus away from a single-minded attempt to zero in on drugs, the “safety” crowd hoped that racing would not be placed in a negative light. I get it. I do not agree with this gambit, but I understand it, especially where a major racetrack is concerned.

But unless the industry as a whole is ready to tackle cheating with drugs head on, the specter of altering the results of racing will never cease.

So this is my pitch to members of the Authority, no matter what side of the fence you are on, no matter how you managed to get your seat on the boards and committees and no matter what your agenda: please do all in your power to make sure that Travis Tygart is given adequate funding to carry on investigations that will yield the type of results those of us who have committed our lives to cleaning up the game can feel that all of our work has been worthwhile.

This message is not directed at USADA. It is not directed at Travis Tygart. It is directed at those individuals who may seek to over-fund their own aspects of the legislation.

Without a robust investigative force that is fully funded this entire initiative will fail and HISA will go the way of all other alphabet soup groups in racing. This is our one last chance to get horse racing right, correct the wrongs on the racetrack and clean up the game enough to present it as a viable sport to fans and horseplayers. We owe them that much.

With permission from the author, Barry Irwin, founder and CEO of Team Valor International

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Our staff likes nothing better than to engage with the HRI Faithful and provide a forum for interaction on horseracing and sports. In that spirit, please be kind and reasonable; keep the language clean, and the tone civil. Comments from those who cannot comply will be deleted. Thank you.

9 Responses

  1. Do you really believe that they want to open those cans of worms ? ” Catch and release” is a phrase which has been appropriate even in this business. When they ” catch” someone they ‘ d rather keep it quiet just like any other outfit checking itself out,from politicians to firemen,policemen’ doctors..My out of place question for the man’ with a day job’,like if he’s s the only one working with a PC: Why is it that watching horses approach the starting gate at Finger Lakes it looks like if they are going uphill,as I have suspected since my early days( 80 s) of making fun of such track and location. Doesn’t that mean that when they leave the starting gate they are going downwards,on a decline to the finish ? What gives? Why is that so ? The stretch run always looks like a ski racer’s downhill !!Go ahead,tell otherwise….Only if you’re not too busy with your daily job !!

  2. Unlike the cliche that is closely associated with that of horseplayers, I see this as a new beginning, a starting point. So typical of critics for critics’ sake to knock something before it gets off the ground. If you feel this way, I suggest sports betting. Come up with a better solution; criticism is easy; addressing a complex issue not so much.

    It’s comments like these that make me consider the Paulick Report approach to engagement; spiking the comments section altogether.

    1. JP,
      It’s interesting how easily each of us can be repeatedly irritated by some particular poster. It would certainly be a shame if a source of such inconsequential commentary were to have such a devastating effect on this community.

      Barry Irwin’s presence here is indeed welcome, but even if he is right that aftercare is a distraction at this point in HISA’s start up, IMO, no aspect of racing that involves cheating–intentional or otherwise–should escape the entity’s scrutiny, sanctions, and preventive regulation at any time.

      Horseplayers deserve protection and a level playing field as much as horsemen. If the game is to undergo radical change to achieve fair competition on the racetrack, then change must also extend to the wagering pools. The now infamous wrong-headed scratch and re-entry of the BC Juvenile Turf Sprint winner with its poorly thought out impact on bettors should be the final straw.

      Excessive takeout that fuels rebates to high volune bettors perverts the parimutuel system by depressing payoffs for players who do not receive them while supporting a money laundering-like approach to generating profits.

      Increasingly tiny fields in major stakes deprive (cheat) fans and bettors of meaningful competition and satisfaction with their continued participation in the game. Excessive purses distributed under these circumstances dampen enthusiasm for the sport and interest in the game overall.

      Not only should there be cooperative stakes scheduling within divisions across venues, but incentives should also be established to increasingly reward horses that continue to perform at a high level as they grow older.

      Disincentives to breed horses before the age of six might further improve the situation. Imagine Kentucky Derby eligibility including a minimum age restriction on a starter’s sire! LOL

      No two-year-old racing for sires less than six would probably contribute to soundness in later years.

      The now established dominance by foreign-based/bred horses in BC turf races suggests that no North American turf race deserves a Grade I rating despite the increased popularity of turf racing here.

  3. I, understand your concern re untoward and senseless comments that contributes nothing to the dialogue, and they are as much a turn-off to readers and other commenters as they are to the editor. I’m not a fancy person but a busy one with no time to waste.

    No one in my view has a more dedicated devotion to a level playing field than Barry Irwin. We first met when he was partners with Jeff Siegel many decades ago but it’s not out of loyalty only.

    Irwin was one of the first to lend his support to WHOA–as did HRI–the organization which led the fight that led to the creation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act.

    In fact, so frustrated was he with the state of American race that he now does the bulk of his racing and equine purchasing/breeding in Europe –at about the same time that Arrogate was spitting in everyone’s eye in the 2016 Travers.

    1. JP,
      Irwin’s commentary is always an interesting read, and I proactively search for his occasional contributions to various racing publications. He surely qualifies as an industry leader with strong opinions, but I can’t recall any concern on his part for leveling the playing field for bettors.

      The consolidation of Thoroughbred racing parallels the frustration with the game among recreational horseplayers since the beginning of the simulcasting era. The quest for integrity in racing must involve all participants just as the effort to reverse climate change requires the combined determination of, and action by, all countries.

      Success will likely elude anything less than a fair shake for all.

      1. I don’t know, I, seems to me I that if you level the playing field with respect to drug rules and regulations, you are helping the player …

        1. That may be true in the long term, JP, but any help it alone provides to horseplayers would still be leveraged in the wagering pools. I’m not saying wagering reform has the same priority as equine medication reform, but acknowledgement and planning now is critical for meaningful action later.

    2. Come on,get off your wooden horse by the couch,you seem to be members of such exclusive,esoteric literati of an intelligentsia club ! You only want opinions from ‘contributors’ too close to your derriere some of whom are just there,here, to pat you on your backside or on your white hair. Weak ruffians ! ” So,don`t you think like me that so and so is like that??” What happened to independent minds willing to disagree or interject some other angles.ideas,thoughts like why is it on today`s Big A program the 4 th race,a $10 k claiming one with a [generous} purse of $ 28,000 has the similar purse of a $ 16k claiming race later on the program? Should`n`t that $ 16 claiming race have a higher purse or that 4 th race have a lower one? If you wish to continue sleepwalking with the same duo of obedient trolls ,good look to your future.Snoozing is not exciting, that is one of the many reasons why OTB and several horse [” insiders ” } outlets are dying by the wayside. Zzzz.. How are your “Xpert” pics doing ? Any $ back guarantee ?[ Ahahahah! }

      1. Intelligent, cogent, and positive criticism always welcome here, has been since 2007.

        My body of work speaks for itself, unfortunately, so does yours.

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