Horse racing safety rules raise questions with the industry

Horses race at Remington Park in Oklahoma City. (Courtesy photo/

The newly formed US Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority’s racetrack safety programs went into effect July 1, and so far it’s not going well, according to some in Oklahoma’s horse racing industry.

They are already concerned about how the next phase of the initiative – the anti-doping and medication control program – will be implemented come Jan. 1, 2023.

On July 15, US Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., sent a letter demanding answers from Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan and President and CEO of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority Lisa Lazarus.

The new law had passed Congress in 2020, tucked away near the end of a 6,000-page budget omnibus bill, said Joe Lucas, chair of the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission. At the time, Mullin was the only member of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation questioning the legislation, which had gained broad support as a means to standardize health and safety requirements for thoroughbred racing horses nationwide.

Once US Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., got behind the legislation, it passed easily, Lucas said.

“Who doesn’t want safety for horses?” Lucas said, discussing the difficulty in fighting against the new structure. The problem, he said, came in the details – or the lack thereof – of the new law. So far, federal regulators have rewritten the rules multiple times and failed to disclose key information about how other states are implementing them.

Oklahoma is one of a handful of states that never officially signed on to implement the federal program. Although two lawsuits Oklahoma was a party to have been thrown out of court, the state is still part of a pending appeal that argues the new system is unconstitutional.

“They’re coming in and charging states to do what the states already do and then they’re sending us a bill for them to oversee us,” Lucas said. The Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission does its job with an annual budget of about $3.5 million; for the first year, the federal HISA has billed horsemen in the state for $14.5 million, which includes the salaries of about five staff members and funding to start the anti-doping portion of the plan.

So far, a final cost for the anti-doping portion has not been published, but regulators are expecting something near $100 million, Lucas said. Even if the amount is capped, it’s an added cost imposed on the horse racing industry.

“Our industry in Oklahoma can’t take a hit of what its percentage of that is and people stay in business,” Lucas said. “It’s borderline, horse racing, as it is to stay in it with the purse structures that we have here now. When you start charging people $1,000 to race they’re going to stop racing.”

Oklahoma’s horse racing industry contributes more than $480 million to the state’s economy when considering racetracks, breeders, trainers and owners, Mullin said in his letter. “This is more than double the economic impact of 2013,” Mullin wrote. “It also creates more than 6,000 direct and indirect jobs in the state.”

With three live racetracks for spectators – Fair Meadows racetrack in Tulsa, Will Rogers Downs in Claremore, and Remington Park racetrack in Oklahoma City – the state is home to more than 14,000 racehorses and 800 breeding horses that make up the industry.

The pandemic only increased horse betting revenues for Oklahoma’s horse industry, Lucas said. Racetracks ran races with no spectators at the facilities in order to provide live streams of the races anyone in the country could bet on.

“The amount of money that is wagered on horse racing in this country is a pretty static number,” Lucas said. “People were sitting in their pajamas at the house betting on a computer and we went from handling a minimal amount of money to six and seven million dollars a day.

“And somebody was like, wait a minute, we don’t need all these tracks in the country racing, these little Podunk places in Oklahoma making this amount of money. We don’t need that. Those gamblers and all those people out there betting online are going to be funneling that money through Kentucky.”

The new law puts into place more burdensome regulations on the industry, making it difficult for independent businesspeople in Oklahoma to compete with large organizations in Kentucky and other states, he said.

“They want to make it like Major League Baseball, but we’re not a league, we’re independent businesspeople,” Lucas said.

Mullin’s letter asks why the entire program was not delayed until January, as was the anti-doping portion. Mullin also asks for the agency to disclose its relationship with other states, some of which refused to sign an agreement with the agency but are nevertheless working with federal regulators to oversee the industry.

Horsemen attempting to work with the agency have experienced an array of technical difficulties, including a computer system that does not recognize the horses they are trying to register.

“They all hate it,” said Danielle Barber, executive director of the Thoroughbred Racing Association of Oklahoma, noting that several created a Facebook group just to air their grievances with the agency.

The Association of Racing Commissioners International is not a federal agency, but has vast experience with regulation of the industry. Yet, representatives of the ARCI were not invited to rulemaking meetings and have yet to meet with representatives of the federal program, said CEO Ed Martin.

“But this is the law until somebody says otherwise, and we will follow the law,” Martin said.


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