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