Thoroughbred Racing Fan Association, Inc.
A New Dawn For Pennsylvania Racing
Bryan Langlois, DVM
A new era began in the world of Pennsylvania Horse Racing on Wed June 29th, 2016 as the newly created Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission was instated and sworn in for their first meeting in Harrisburg, PA. Act 7 of 2016, abolished the separate Thoroughbred and Standardbred commissions and create one unified State Racing Commission. Along with the creation of the commission, the Act created some major changes to the structure of oversight for racing in the Commonwealth as well as altered the funding pathways for various aspects of regulation of the sport. It also has given horsemen the power to be directly involved in making policy changes and creating rules on medication, something that is not often seen in other states. I attended the first meeting interested in what would be forthcoming and to make sure the voice of the fan was heard.
The Commission is chaired by the PA Secretary of Agriculture, Russell Redding. He is a man I have a lot of respect for in working with him as part of other committees and Boards at the Dept. The other currently seated members are: Dr. Corinne Sweeney; Thomas J Ellis; C Edward Rogers, Jr.; Russell B Jones, Jr; Michelle C Ruddy; and Salvatore M. De Bunda. There are currently 3 seats that are still vacant because of current background checks that are going on for those that have been appointed by their respective agencies.
After a morning session dealing with the issues of introducing the new commission members to the law, their responsibilities, and other important regulatory issues they will be facing, the main aspect of the meeting got underway in the afternoon. Secretary Redding reiterated the unique opportunity that was before everyone as new commissions such as this are, “not created everyday”. He urged the members to take advantage of this to invoke some real positive change in the industry and its perception in the public’s eye.
Another big change brought about in the law was the creation of a Bureau Director for both Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing. This Director would have the responsibility of the day to day operations of the industry as well as other tasks that the Commission decides to bestow upon him or her. On the Thoroughbred side of things, the Commission voted unanimously to recommend Tom Chukas for the position of Bureau Director of Thoroughbred Racing. Multiple members of the Commission stated they were very pleased with what Tom had to say during the interview process. Barring any circumstances arising during the official hiring process of Mr. Chukas, it appears he will be the new Bureau Director of Thoroughbred Racing in PA.
Commissioner De Bunda made a suggestion that the Commission and Bureau Directors, when hired, hold some smaller informal meetings with various stakeholders in the industry so members of the Commission can be better educated about the more pressing issues that are facing the sport and garner ideas on how to best work to promote the sport and give it a more positive look in the public’s eye. It does seem like a very wise idea but only if the suggestions are taken seriously.
There were some budgetary issues discussed next, and most interesting to me was that overall handle was actually up in PA 2% year to date over last year. This is pretty amazing considering taxable handle had declined 71% since 2011 (a driving force to have a new law and reforms in place) and was a nice surprise to see. The other nice surprise was that for the first time a specific line item in the budget granted roughly 2.5 million dollars for promotion of the industry in PA. This is the first time this has ever occurred. In addition, the new law puts the cost of drug testing on the industry itself and takes it off the taxpayers.
A brief discussion of number of racing dates was held, but the issue was tabled until the next meeting so that hopefully all members of the Commission would be seated by then and a proper discussion could be had. It is the opinion of some, me included, that perhaps year round racing could be done away with and by having the harsh winter months off the horses can be more rested and bigger and more competitive fields would be the result when racing resumed in the spring months. The decision on number of racing dates falls squarely on the Commission now, and so all race date requests must be made to them via a petition.
The final major topic of discussion of this inaugural meeting centered on the process of adjudication of cases brought both before the stewards and the Commission. There was the concern raised by the Commission that many of these cases, some involving medication violations and others different infractions, have been languishing for far too long as the appeals process is carried out. Specifically, there was the concern that many of the horsemen who are currently fighting violations are granted numerous continuances of their cases by either the Stewards or the hearing officers of the Dept. of Agriculture. Previously Acting Bureau Director of Thoroughbred Racing Walter Remmert stated before the Commission that often times the continuances are granted because of lack of the trainer or other accused to be available for hearings with the necessary witnesses. He stated in that case, especially when there are multiple violations over a period of time that need to be reviewed; it can be very hard to schedule things in a timely manner. This obviously does not sit well with the fans of the sport or some members of the Commission, who stated their displeasure in this and wanted to know why it was taking so long. The legal counsel of the Commission stated they were not aware of this backlog issue at Parx and will look into the matter to try and speed things along. Currently there were 4 outstanding cases that needed to be adjudicated by the new Commission and it was hoped that those decisions would be made at the next Commission meeting at the end of July.
The final order of business for the meeting was the Public Comment period. At this time I took the opportunity to make some comments on behalf of a stakeholder group that I really did not hear mentioned at all during the meeting, the fan. I explained that, despite what members of the industry may want to think or believe, Pennsylvania is considered one of the biggest laughingstocks of the Thoroughbred industry currently and that the Commission has a lot of work to do to turn around that perception. I stated how we all want to see the industry thrive in the Commonwealth and making sure that the needs of the fans and the welfare of the horses are always being met will go a long way to meeting that goal. I also raised the following points for consideration of the Commission as they go forward:
· Not one of the Thoroughbred tracks in PA is accredited by the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance. I stated how I felt this was deplorable considering so many other tracks in neighboring states are. It is something the Commission should look at getting done ASAP.
· I requested to immediately look at creating proper regulations for usage of the riding crop by jockey, as there really is no set rule right now in the current regulations. I referred to an race instance at Parx brought forth by a diligent racing fan and the Paulick Report regarding abuse of a horse by a jockey via the whip, and all that jockey got was a 250 dollar fine by the stewards. I explained that this is one of the biggest national issues in the game right now, and it needs to be addressed.
· Urging them to look at lowering the takeout rates on wagers in PA, as it is often seen that when takeout goes down handle goes up.
· I stated that I had many ideas to improve the fan experience at some of the tracks and would be sharing these with the individual operators of the tracks themselves.
· I brought up that it was my understanding that anytime a breakdown occurs at a track in PA that an official investigation is launched into it including a necropsy and interviews with all parties involved. Whether this was actually true I was not sure of, but if it was not that it should be and the information from this investigation be made public as soon as possible and presented for report at each Commission meeting.
· I raised an issue of what I felt to be lack of appropriate veterinary response time to a horse that suffered a catastrophic injury at Penn National the Saturday night before the meeting and stressed that the welfare of these animals is the most important thing and if it cannot be provided during their time on the track then that track should not race. Not only was it vital for the horse’s well-being, but also for the public and fans to see that every possible thing is done to care for these great athletes when an injury does occur. (After making this comment I had an email conversation with the Racing Director at Penn National and he assured me that changes are being made to operational procedures to make sure help can get to injured horses in a more timely manner. It was nice to see such a quick response to a concern)
· Finally, I made a request that any veterinarian that is found to be complicit in the illegal medication of horses or conspiring in the altering of a horse via drugs to affect that horses performance be immediately reported to the State Board for proper sanctions and, if the offense threatened the health and welfare of the horse in any way, be immediately reported to the proper authorities for animal cruelty violations. This was not easy for me to say considering I am a member of the profession, but there truly is no place for it in the sport or the profession.
· I reiterated my love for this sport and wanting to really see it succeed in the future, but to do that the Commission was going to have to take a real hard look on what needs to be done to bring fans back to the sport and prove that it is being run properly.
So that is where we currently stand. There is cautious optimism I think for the sport of thoroughbred racing in PA. It is just a matter of seeing if the Commission can take its new important role as seriously as it needs to be to better the reputation of this industry. The perception among the public and media is that cheaters run rampant at PA tracks and the regulators have turned a blind eye to it. Well, perhaps there will be a new Sherriff in town now, one that will be able to bring racing back. I think all fans are not looking for drastic change overnight, but any small step in the right direction will be progress that this sport has not seen in the Commonwealth in some time. The first step was taken June 29th. Only time will tell us what the future steps hold.
The next meeting of the Commission will be Wed July 27th, 2016 at 10AM at the PA Dept. of Agriculture building in Harrisburg. I urge any fans that can attend to join me there to voice your support for the sport. If you would like me to raise points or concerns you may have, please feel free to email me at Shelterdoc38@yahoo.com.