U.S. horse racing's governing body has announced a new reform initiative aimed at uniformly improving thoroughbred safety. As VOA's Teresa Sullivan reports, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) vowed to take action in May following the tragic deaths of two popular race horses in as many years.
The widely-publicized deaths of thoroughbreds, "Barbaro" and "Eight Belles," renewed controversy, as well as sparked anger and outrage over the ethics of racing, and of horse safety in general, at U.S. tracks. Both Barbaro and Eight Belles were euthanized by lethal injection after irreparably breaking bones in their legs while racing.
Barbaro was destroyed in January 2007, eight months after fracturing one of his hind legs running as a three-year-old at the Preakness Stakes in 2006 . The two-year-old filly, Eight Belles, was put down in May on the track where she fell after shattering both of her ankles only moments after placing second at the Kentucky Derby.
The Derby is the first event of U.S. horse racing's prestigious "Triple Crown," which includes the Preakness Stakes in Maryland, and the Belmont Stakes in New York.
In May, the president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Alex Waldrop, told VOA Sports the thoroughbred industry's number one priority is equine health and safety. He emphasized that the NTRA was serious about its responsibility to provide a safe environment for horses while racing, as well as training.
On October 15th, Waldrop and the NTRA unveiled plans for sweeping new reforms he says are the most comprehensive in the history of the sport. The NTRA also appointed an independent counsel to review, monitor, and assess the reform program, and to provide annual public reports on the industry's progress toward its safety goals.
Waldrop says the first order of business will be to establish a "Code of Conduct." "This is a long term project so we want to do it right from the beginning. We want to make sure that this code of conduct is important, it is relevant and it gets to the heart of the safety issues right off the bat."
The NTRA says it has created a new organization called the "Safety and Integrity Alliance," that will implement the new reforms, as well as grant certification to race tracks that comply with a package of strict new rules and regulations.
The Safety and Integrity Alliance is comprised of more than 50 race tracks and horsemen's associations across the United States and in Canada, as well as other groups such as the Jockey's Guild.
The NTRA appointed former U.S. Health and Human Services cabinet secretary, Tommy G. Thompson, as its independent counsel. Thompson, who also served four terms as the governor of Wisconsin, used to be part-owner of a thoroughbred that ran in the Kentucky Derby. He says he is going to be tough and extremely independent in his new role.
"The truth of the matter of it is that I'm passionate about it. Horse racing is the sport of kings. And it is what people love to watch, and they want their horses and the jockeys and everybody around to be safe . . . and above any kind of suspicion, or any kind of ethical things, and that is where I come from, and that is why they hired me."
One of the horse racing industry's biggest critics -- the animal protection group known as PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- praised the NTRA's reform efforts, but with some caveats.
PETA representative Kathy Guillermo told VOA Sports that PETA is pleased the NTRA is taking steps to improve race horse safety. "If they have got many people in the industry behind them, not only the racetracks, but the owners, the trainers, and the veterinarian, and the jockeys, then I think reform is possible."
But while lauding the NTRA's efforts, Guillermo says PETA would like the NTRA to completely do away with dirt tracks, ban all whipping, and raise a horse's minimum racing age to three years to prevent the type of catastrophic injuries that led to the deaths of Barbaro and Eight Belles.
The NTRA announced its new reform plan 10 days before the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita raceway in southern California, which is considered the richest two days in thoroughbred racing.
Organizers have made two major changes for this year's 25th Anniversary Breeders' Cup. A ban on all anabolic steroids in horses, and changing from dirt to synthetic track surfaces to better protect the safety of horses and riders. The new rules state that trainers of horses that test positive for steroids face a one-year suspension from the Breeders' Cup, and three-time violators will be banned for life.
The horseman's organization, Breeders' Cup Limited, is a member of the NTRA's new Safety and Integrity Alliance.