By Frank Angst

In an Aug. 29 Blood-Horse magazine story, National Thoroughbred Racing Association president Alex Waldrop and other industry leaders assessed the work of the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance in an article titled “Safety… on a Volunteer Basis.”

Waldrop participated in an extensive email Q&A with Blood-Horse writer Frank Angst that we thought would also would be of interest.

FA: How would you assess the Safety and Integrity Alliance since its Oct. 2008 launch? Is it meeting the goals that had been set?

AW: The NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance was launched in 2008 as a self-regulatory approach to facilitating the uniform, nationwide adoption of industry developed and agreed upon safety and integrity standards (the “Code of Standards”) by means of an established accreditation, compliance, and enforcement program.

As of today, virtually every major Thoroughbred racetrack in the United States and Canada has been accredited by the Alliance for documented compliance with the Alliance Code of Standards. We are very pleased to report that the 23 accredited racetracks currently host almost 90% of North America’s graded stakes races and process some 70% of the North American pari-mutuel handle. But we are far from complacent.

Our ultimate goal for horse racing in the U.S. is for every horse race, every day, to be conducted at a racetrack that complies with the Alliance Code of Standards. By that standard, clearly much work remains to be done. Many more tracks need to be certified by the alliance as compliant with the code of standards. And the code of standards must be continually updated and strengthened as dictated by scientific advances and proven industry best practices. Nonetheless, the nationwide progress to date is proof that the vast majority of participants in our sometimes fractured industry are embracing the fundamental belief underpinning the alliance: that the health and safety of our human and equine athletes and the integrity of our sport are horseracing’s top priorities.

FA: I ran some numbers and of the Safety and Integrity Alliance member tracks that publicly release their data on catastrophic breakdowns; the rates are consistently lower for member tracks than non-member tracks. What does that say about the importance of membership in the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance?

AW: It is great news for horse racing that the rate of catastrophic breakdowns is declining, especially at alliance-accredited tracks. Nothing is more important for our business and our sport than to reduce the number of horses whose racing careers are shortened by injury or fatality. The reasons for these reductions are no doubt multi-factorial, just like the myriad reasons for horse injury.

The alliance is proud to play a key part in the effort; but credit also goes to the many organizations and individuals now working with tracks to make racing as safe as possible for humans and horses. Since 2008, the industry-wide change in attitude and commitment to safe racing is nothing short of remarkable. However, this is not the time to pat ourselves on the back as much work remains and the data, no matter how promising, only serves to underscore the point. As long as riders are being injured or horse fatalities are occurring during training or in the midst of competition, we have work left to do.

FA: How important is it for tracks to be able to share information on safety and develop some level of consistency that participants can rely on from track to track?

AW: One of the many positives of the accreditation process has been the wide distribution of best practices gleaned at the numerous member racetracks. Across the continent, racetracks encounter numerous similar challenges to conducting race meetings that are both safe and fair but their practical and often innovative solutions—based on geography, resources, regulation, and corporate culture—vary widely. When we find innovative solutions at a member track, the alliance is quick to recommend those solutions for consideration at other tracks.

And, even more than this, racetracks frequently call on the alliance to recommend solutions that have been implemented elsewhere and to make connections with those familiar with the implementation of those solutions. For example, the alliance has provided on-going resources and forged connections for racetracks looking to put into practice third-party Lasix administration protocols, and is currently working with another track to perfect certified helmet standards specific to its local requirements.

The alliance has also become a respected best practices clearinghouse for the industry. This phenomenon is an effective change agent for the industry because it gives the alliance the opportunity to work with several non-accredited or provisionally accredited racetracks intent on making the improvements necessary to achieve full accreditation. These wins are almost always discreet. We typically will not create headlines from them, but they bring substantial impacts for stakeholders and customers.

One other important role for the alliance is the dissemination of industry-developed, standardized practices such as the National Uniform Medication Program and pre-race veterinary exam protocols that are important parts of the code of standards. The accreditation process along with the annual update of the code of standards by the alliance advisory board provide the alliance with multiple forums for ongoing dialogue with member tracks regarding operational and regulatory gaps that need filling. Even after accreditation, member tracks are often required to advocate for much-needed regulatory change. As a consequence, member tracks become partners in the alliance’s important reform agenda. Thus, every track accreditation represents a win for uniformity and standardization in the industry.

FA: In 2008 the sport was facing a public relations crisis following the breakdown of Eight Belles. Has the Safety and Integrity Alliance helped improve perceptions of the sport?

AW: The alliance, which is modeled after similar programs in healthcare and education, has most definitely improved perceptions of the sport, but the alliance is not just a public relations effort or campaign. The goal of the alliance is to implement the many good ideas and innovations that will actually make horse racing safer and fairer.

The equine injury database allows us to benchmark ourselves and to identify ways to reduce injuries going forward. The National Uniform Medication Program is improving and standardizing medication rules, penalties, and testing. As pre- and post-race drug testing becomes more accurate and proficient, they also become more meaningful deterrents to cheaters. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance now ensures that more of our Thoroughbreds are receiving the highest degree of care after their racing days are behind them and as they transition to second careers. Through the efforts of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, in the past three years the industry has spent almost $10 million on nearly 100 specific research projects aimed at improving the health and welfare of the horse. The Thoroughbred Safety Committee and the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit are generating numerous safety recommendations. And the Racing Surface Testing Laboratory now scientifically examines racing surfaces to enhance safety.

The Alliance recognizes and supports each of these innovations and many others as critical steps in the effort to solve the complex puzzle of horse racing safety and integrity. By acting as the primary implementation vehicle for these innovations, some of which cannot be easily legislated or imposed by regulation (e.g. financial support for scientific research), the alliance constantly seeks to raise the bar on safety and integrity, not merely as a public relations effort but as an effort to change racing for the better.

FA: Does it surprise you that not every track has come on board?

AW: No. The application for accreditation is an extensive, complicated, and sometimes a tedious exercise. The code of standards is substantive and we look for demonstrated achievement in order to accredit a racetrack. It is not a process to be taken lightly. It is also an open examination where the test questions are laid bare for all to see. Those who can’t pass the test generally do not apply.

That said, there are some racetracks that have put a bulls-eye on accreditation but just have not arrived yet. We work to help these tracks make progress on whatever gap might be holding them back which is consistent with our goal that at some point all operating racetracks should be accredited.

FA: I noticed in the NTRA Annual Report that alliance revenues are listed at more than $226,000 and expenditures are listed at $519,000. What are the reasons for that discrepancy and is the NTRA comfortable with that difference?

AW: Since its inception in 2008, the alliance has been a top priority of the NTRA so we have never expected or demanded that alliance-accredited tracks pay the full cost of the alliance. We do attempt to recover our out-of-pocket costs for on-sight inspections and the like but we never want the fee for accreditation to become a barrier to seeking accreditation.

In fact, for many tracks, the costs of compliance with the code of standards is the major challenge. These same funding issues often challenge even the best intended regulatory bodies seeking to ensure the integrity of horse racing. Bottom line, perhaps the greatest challenge to safe, fair racing in North America is not lack of will but the lack of the significant financial resources necessary for safer track facilities, better-trained personnel, and more rigorous regulatory oversight. The alliance’s financial needs will always take a back seat to these critical industry needs.

FA: What has Steve Koch brought to the equation since taking over as the alliance’s executive director in April?

AW: The alliance benefits from Steve Koch’s personal experience as a racetrack operator. His 12 years at Woodbine Racetrack, where he was vice president of racing since 2008, mean that he has lived the Alliance Code of Standards and has personally experienced all aspects of the code of standards. Under Steve’s direction, Woodbine has been a prominent member of the Alliance and a forward promoter of the alliance mission from day one.

Steve often says the Woodbine workforce and its horsemen embody a safety and integrity culture. The alliance has always counted on Woodbine in general and Steve in particular to enthusiastically embrace the attitude of rigorous compliance with the code of standards. Because he has lived all aspects of code of standards as a capable racetrack manager, Steve brings real credibility, creativity, and practicality to the process of engaging regulators and track operators alike.

FA: Any other thoughts related to the alliance?

AW: Many organizations and entities have played major roles in the effort to make racing safer for the participants and fairer for fans and horseplayers. The alliance has always depended upon the hard work and determination of others to provide well researched, broadly considered, consensus based reforms in the areas of safety and integrity. That has not changed and we are pleased that so many are engaged in the effort across the country.

The simple but challenging goal of the alliance continues to be the implementation of these good ideas and practices on a nationwide, uniform basis through the racetrack accreditation process. As we have said from the beginning, the industry has never lacked the will to reform but it has perhaps lacked the structure to accomplish that reform on a nationwide basis. The self-regulatory model embodied by the alliance, acting in concert with industry groups, individuals, and regulators, is currently the most practical, achievable means by which the industry can implement the broad range of safety and integrity reforms the industry so badly needs.