After spending about a decade in the horse racing industry, Mary Cage’s love for animals wasn’t enough to keep her in a job she could no longer bear.
In recent years, headline-grabbing tragedies and scandals have plagued the horse racing industry.
In 2019, in a single racing season, more than 30 horses died at California’s Santa Anita Park. Doping allegations have followed the owners and trainers of the Triple Crown winners. And in March 2020, 27 people have been charged over an alleged racehorse doping scheme.
Cage, who left the industry at age 26, recently wrote that the tragedy of Medina Spirit, whose 2021 Kentucky Derby victory was stripped and died in decemberforced her to question the direction of the industry.
“I think the love for horses is still deeply rooted in the industry, but there’s so much change that needs to be made,” Cage told NPR. “And as an ancient sport, horse racing tends to remain steeped in tradition and is therefore often very resistant to change.”
From fashion, mint juleps and, of course, horse racing, Saturday’s Kentucky Derby is an event steeped in tradition.
From the outside, the industry as a whole looks the same as it always has. But beneath the glamor and excitement, the industry over 100 years is on the cusp of a major transformation.
Congress takes the stage
Congress stepped in last year in response to high-profile allegations of doping and abuse plaguing horse racing.
The Safety Authority is responsible for regulating both racing safety and doping control. It is currently establishing a uniform set of standards. The security rules have been approved by the Federal Trade Commission and are expected to go into effect July 1. They are also working on anti-doping rules that will go into effect July 1, 2023.
Since its inception in the United States, the horse racing industry has largely existed under a patchwork of rules across dozens of States that host horse racing. For example, each state may have different standards on the use of whips during a race and even the types of drugs horses may be given.
This is different from other major sports leagues in the United States. The NBA, for example, has a set of standards and rules for all athletes and teams.
Penalties for trainers or horse owners who violate these rules also differ by jurisdiction. If they are found to have broken the rules in one state, they can often enter a race in another state soon after.
The creation of the Security Authority gives Cage hope that a new dawn is dawning for horse racing.
“I think HISA is going to be one of the most comprehensive steps toward uniformity and toward horse and human and racing safety that we could take,” Cage said.
Elsewhere, state-level horse racing commissions and industry groups’ feelings about the upcoming changes range from apprehensive to outright hostility.
The National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association – which represents Thoroughbred racehorse owners, trainers and other staff – filed a federal complaint against the Safety Authority. The organization, along with several state affiliates, called for an end to the authority and questioned its constitutionality. But last month, a judge sided with the safety authority.
A separate lawsuit filed in Kentucky by the racing commissions of West Virginia, Oklahoma and the US Trotting Association is still pending.
“Everybody would rather it didn’t exist. I don’t think that’s an unfair statement,” Scott Chaney, executive director of the Horse Racing Board of California, told NPR.
Following the mass fatalities at Santa Anita Park, California enacted dozens of new rules to make horse racing safer, he said.
“The irony is not lost on me but part of the reason [HISA] exists is because of the catastrophic injuries that occurred in California in 2019,” he said. “But I would say that three years later we are probably no longer in a position to need something like HISA.
In fact, California’s rules would be stricter than some found in HISA, he said. Federal law does not allow for a stricter interpretation of safety rules under the agency’s authority.
“Under the rules, jockeys are limited to using the whip six times, but no more than two times in a row ‘without giving the horse an opportunity to respond,'” according to the daily running form.
Mark J. Terrill/AP
“We’re not thrilled that this is coming into effect,” Chaney said. “We recognize that this is federal law and believe we should support it and try to figure out the best way to make it work.”
California was the first state to join. She has agreed to collect and remit the fees related to the Security Authority, and she is to pay approximately $1.4 million.
This amount varies greatly from state to state.
Iowa, for example, received a bill of around $215,000, according to Brian Ohorilko, director of games at the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.
Ohorilko told NPR that he, too, wondered whether the creation of the Security Authority would be more of a burden than a benefit.
Chaney predicts that the price of Security Authority membership will eventually kill small racetracks in some states.
“I think it’s fair to say there will be some contraction in terms of the number of racetracks because of this, because they won’t be able to conform over time,” he said. “But I think those who are able to comply will be in a much better position, much stronger, and horse racing as a whole will be in a better position.”
As for Cage, she does not know when or if she will return to horse racing. There are so many changes she wants to see in the sport. She hopes to be part of it.
“I think there needs to be a big step change to really clean up the sport,” she said. “I am an ally of horse racing, but I am an ally of demanding improvements for the good of the horses of this sport and its people.”