Horse racing's efforts to clean up the sport and level the playing field take another step forward today with the launch of a new anti-doping program.
It's an attempt to centralize the drug testing of racehorses and manage the results, as well as dole out uniform penalties to horses and trainers instead of the current patchwork rules that vary from state to state.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) was created by the federal government nearly three years ago. It has two programs: racetrack safety, which went into effect in July, and anti-doping and medication control.
"It's one standard. You can be in Kentucky, you can be in Ohio, you can be in California and you're going to be judged by the same standard," HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said.
HISA's Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit -- its independent enforcement agency -- has reached agreements with all of the state racing commissions and/or racetracks that will have live racing as of today.
Seven of the biggest racing states -- Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, as well as Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma -- will continue to use their current staff to collect samples.
In Arizona, Illinois and Ohio, there is no signed voluntary agreement with HISA, so it contracted directly with either current staff or hired its own personnel to collect samples. Post-race testing only in New York will be handled this way.
States that have live racing after mid-April are in discussion with the enforcement agency, HISA said.
The agency will work with accredited labs in Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, California, Pennsylvania and Kentucky to analyze samples.
"For the first time, racing's labs will be harmonized and held to the same performance standards nationwide," said Ben Mosier, executive director of the enforcement agency. "Thoroughbred racehorses will be tested for the same substances at the same levels, regardless of where they are located or compete."
Unlike the central offices that govern the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, the 38 U.S. racing states have long operated under rules that vary from track to track. Horses, owners, trainers and jockeys move frequently between states to compete. Locales would honor punishments meted out elsewhere, but inconsistencies created confusion and made it possible to game the system.
Lazarus said that in talking with horsemen they want three things from HISA: Catch the cheaters, be realistic about medication, and be aware of environmental contaminants that trainers cannot control but can trigger positive tests.
"That's exactly what our program does," she said recently.
HISA has been met with resistance in its short existence.
Last year, a federal appeals court ruled it unconstitutional, saying Congress gave too much authority to the group it established to oversee the racing industry. Congress tweaked the wording of the original legislation to fix that. It also gave the Federal Trade Commission the authority to oversee HISA.
Legal challenges in Texas and Louisiana to HISA resulted in the federal appeals court preventing it from operating, so state regulations will continue to govern the sport. Racetracks in Texas and Nebraska have chosen not to broadcast their simulcast signals out of state, so HISA currently has no authority to regulate them, Lazarus said.
As a result of the ongoing legal issues surrounding HISA, the anti-doping program won't begin in every state on today as Lazarus had hoped.
"It's not perfect," she said. "We have to change some things, we have to see how some things go."
There's also been vocal opposition among some in the industry over the prospect of sweeping change -- as well as its cost to racetracks, horse owners and trainers, and the impact it will have on business.
"They've been taking away certain medications, therapy machines, things that are truly beneficial," said trainer Bret Calhoun, whose stable operates in Louisiana, Kentucky and Texas. "They're having the opposite effect of what they're saying ... safety of the horse and rider. They're doing absolutely the opposite."
Calhoun spoke earlier this month at the National Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association national convention in Louisiana.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry was even more blunt.
"At the core of HISA is this: a handful of wealthy players wish to control the sport through a one-size-fits-all, pay-to-play scheme that will decimate the inclusive culture of horse racing," he said at the convention.
Lazarus counters the criticism, saying, "We're there to make racing better."
She has said she's aiming for transparent investigations and speedier resolutions of disputes. And Lazarus has spent much of her first year on the job trying to "overcommunicate and overeducate."
"I'm really hopeful that the message is getting through," she said.
There will be no trial period for infractions under the new rules. Veterinarians who administer medications to horses have had to get up to speed on the regulations as well as trainers who are ultimately responsible for what goes into their horses.
"Change I think is always hard," Lazarus said, "and this is like seismic change."