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Industry leaders expect national horse racing rules to mirror Maryland’s

Bernardini, outside left, ridden Javier Castellano, Sweetnorthernsaint, center, ridden by Kent Desormeaux, along with Like Now, left front, ridden by Garrett Gomez and Hemingway's Key, along the rail, ridden by Jeremy Rose, round the final turn of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Saturday, May 20, 2006. Bernardini won the race with Sweetnorthernsaint in second, Hemingway's Key came in third. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

New federal legislation will create national regulations for medical treatment and drug use for horse racing that some experts believe will mirror what is now in place in Maryland, where the Preakness Stakes, shown in this photo, is the state’s marquee event. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Horse racing officials and activists are hailing the passage and signing of a bill that will standardize medication and doping rules in an effort to make the sport safer and fairer. The legislation ultimately may lead to rules that already are in place in Maryland, industry experts say. 

Through the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump as part of a $2.3 trillion end-of-year spending bill, the federal government will create an authority to set safety and medical standards in the racing industry. 

The bill gives an independent panel authority to set uniform, national medication, drug and track safety standards to be enforced by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Racetracks that don’t take part won’t be allowed to take bets from out of state, and the rules will become part of the competition agreement for those who want to run horses.

Alan Foreman, the chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and legal counsel to several racing industry and equine organizations, said he expects the standards the authority establishes to be largely in line with what already exist in Maryland.

“I believe they will be consistent with what Maryland and what the mid-Atlantic are doing, since we have been national leaders in this effort,” Foreman said, noting that horse fatalities in Maryland’s racing industry are currently at the lowest level a decade.

Local horse racing industry leaders will advocate for the federal government to adopt Maryland’s standards, which include protocols regarding prerace examinations, veterinary protocols, procedures to help identify horses at risk for catastrophic injury and more.

These standards, laid out in a 2019, multistate document called “The Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities,” are considered “the gold standard” of racehorse safety and welfare, Foreman said.

Though the measure received bipartisan support, trepidation remains about the costs of implementing national safety and welfare standards. Some worry that the costs associated with establishing a national authority will wear on state’s racing commissions, to the detriment of local horse racing industries.

“Until there is a deeper dive into what the costs are going to be, it’s going to cause concern,” Foreman said.

Nationally, horse racing officials and industry activists hailed the measure as a significant step to make the sport safer and fairer.

“This is a monumental step forward that will help secure the future of thoroughbred racing in the United States,” New York Racing Association president and CEO Dave O’Rourke said. “For the first time, the sport will have a unified set of national safety and integrity standards to replace an outdated system that relied on patchwork regulation. … This legislation will further modernize horse racing and arrives at a critical juncture in its history.”

For decades, 38 different jurisdictions have been able to set their own rules, including varying limits on medication and how far out from a race certain drugs can be given. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020 will make those things uniform across the board, with one aim to eliminate the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

“It’s the first time it’ll have a national program for both the anti-doping as well as racetrack safety,” U.S Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis T. Tygart said by phone Monday. “The ultimate goals of both of those is to ensure as safe and fair and drug-free of a sport as possibly can be.”

The bill is eight years in the making and gained further momentum after two major incidents. First there was a spike of racehorse deaths in California from 2019 into 2020. Then there were the March indictments of two high-profile trainers and more than two dozen others for taking part in a widespread international scheme to drug horses to make them race faster.

Animal Wellness Action executive director Marty Irby, who lobbied on behalf of the bill and testified before Congress in January, called it “the biggest gain for horses in half a century.” The National Thoroughbred Racing Association said it’s “historic legislation that will establish national standards to promote fairness and increase safety in thoroughbred racing nationwide.”

It will be up to the horse racing industry to figure out how to pay for new standardized testing and enforcement, but states already spend roughly $30 million annually in that department.

O’Rourke, whose state hosts over 200 days of live racing annually and the Belmont Stakes, expects the bill to provide the “strongest anti-doping authority the sport has ever seen” at a critical time.

“With the independent enforcement of uniform rules, I think it will be an absolute game changer for the sport if ultimately it’s put in place and run as effectively as it could be,” Tygart said. “We’re honored to be part of the solution.”

Daily Record business reporter Johanna Alonso and Stephen Whyno of The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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