We all knew we’d be seeing something like this soon. Well, now it’s here.

I am referring to a state legislative effort in California to address last year’s public nightmare involving the catastrophic breakdowns at Santa Anita Park. Last week, California General Assembly member Ash Kalra introduced Assembly Bill 2177 titled, “Equine Welfare and Safety in Horse Racing Act.”

It is a broad bill covering many facets of regulation within the parameters of its title.

There appears to be a strong appetite to address many important issues that the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) either cannot address without enabling legislation or cannot make stricter requirements on even though they are within the CHRB’s purview.

With any legislation of this type, industry insiders’ initial focus is the answer to the question, “How does this affect me?”

My approach is different. In reviewing the legislation, my goal was to answer the following two general questions:

Is it fair, balanced, and doable, and does it serve the best interests of the horse and the horse racing industry?
Does it go too far?

Upon review, my answer to these questions are yes and yes.

Let me explain.

It is obvious that much thought and effort has gone into producing this legislation. In many ways, the bill mandates measures that will be transformative to the racing industry and that could serve as models for the ongoing national reform movement. As with most sweeping pieces of legislation, it has a few provisions that do not match the realities of the sport and could do immeasurable harm by making the sport not viable.

I’ll sort out which provisions of the bill fit each of these two categories. What you will see below is a partial list due to the scope of the bill. I’ve chosen only those few provisions that are truly transformative and those that are so ill conceived they could risk the future of California horse racing.

Transformative measures

The bill requires computerized tomography (CT) scanning equipment or a digital scanning equivalent to detect potential horse injuries be available on-site.
The bill requires that all medications dispensed on-site be limited to the least amount needed for the horse while staying at the racetrack. The bill would require CHRB to adopt regulations to require that the on-site central pharmacy has complete electronic recordkeeping to facilitate monitoring of veterinarian treatment and medications. The bill would prohibit private veterinarians from bringing medications to the track that are not dispensed at the on-site central pharmacy.

Commentary: There is no longer any doubt that many catastrophic breakdowns are the result of preexisting conditions. This has been demonstrated due to efforts of California’s world-class Equine Postmortem Program. Assuming this technology will identify at-risk horses and the costs are not prohibitive, availability of CT scanning equipment or a digital scanning equivalent should become widespread, if not mandated in each racing jurisdiction.

With regards to establishing a track pharmacy, this is, simply stated, a game changer. No doubt there will be many challenges in implementing a program that is so contrary to current industry practice. It will, however, do something the industry has been unable to accomplish: get its arms around racing’s drug culture. It will also finally change the business model of practicing veterinarians by disincentivizing the selling of drugs as payment for services. Veterinarians will have stricter medication rules and reporting requirements. And, if they are going to stay in business, veterinarians will have to utilize their education and experience in diagnosing potential issues with the long-term health of the horse as the primary consideration instead of the short-term financial interest of the owner and/or trainer.

Going too far

The bill would require that the license of a trainer with more than three violations of these medication requirements or the medication rules or regulations of any other state be suspended or revoked.
The CHRB shall suspend a trainer’s license following the death of a horse during racing or training, pending investigation by the CHRB.

Commentary: A three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule might make a catchy slogan, but make no mistake, the impracticality of such a provision could end racing in California. Or, for that matter, any state that would adopt such a provision. I will concede that, should the balance of reforms in the bill be adopted, there would likely be a substantial decline of equine drug infractions. Notwithstanding such declines, accidental, inadvertent, and inexplicable drug findings would still occur. Simply stated, few trainers would risk their livelihood racing in a state that had such an unrealistic view of inadvertent drug infractions. This provision would likely cause most owners and trainers to leave California with no hope of attracting others to replace the expatriates.

Another provision that is unrealistically punitive is suspending the trainer after the death of a horse pending review. It is very uncommon for a trainer to have any reasonable foresight as to a possible catastrophic injury. It has been demonstrated, time and time again, that after review of postmortem records, trainers are not held liable for the accidental death of their horse. Knowing that, why would we now suspend him or her when we have no reasonable expectation that the suspension would be justified? Such a summary suspension should be limited to the occasions when regulators have evidence of neglect or malfeasance. As with the three-strikes-and-you’re-out provision, a rule that automatically suspends a trainer pending review would cause an unnecessary and irreversible exodus of horsemen out of California.

Former Indiana Horse Racing Commission executive director Joe Gorajec is a consultant whose clients include Horse Racing Reform, an industry initiative led by The Jockey Club and Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.

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