The integrity of horseracing had quite a year in 2020.

The year began (more or less) with the indictment of trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro – along with two dozen others – on charges they had engaged in a large-scale conspiracy to dope horses illegally, allegedly including 2019 Kentucky Derby first-past-the-post horse Maximum Security and multi-millionaire X Y Jet.

Those cases are still ongoing, but one factor that’s important: the alleged miscreants were busted by an elaborate FBI sting, rather than by routine or even enhanced drug-testing.

The year ended with the passage of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA), which was rolled into the much larger bill that included Covid-19 relief and government spending for the year to come.

One hopes, but can’t be certain, that this is a journey from the ridiculous to the sublime.

The alleged behavior of Servis, Navarro, and the others demonstrates two things about them. If the charges are true, these guys are the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. And – again, if true – they are also despicable and utterly amoral.

The good news is that the question of what racing’s gonna do about it may be irrelevant. Their fate is, for now at any rate, left to the tender mercies of the justice system.

The first development – the indictments – didn’t exactly beget the second, the passage of HISA. The effort to pass HISA – which is both supported and opposed by substantial groups of industry participants – was the result of several years’ work.

HISA accelerates a process that’s been ongoing in racing for several years: the increasing harmonization of medication rules via the National Uniform Medication Program (NUMP) pushed by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. It also includes a safety component dealing with racetrack surfaces themselves.

Both are positive steps. As rules have gotten tougher – and contrary to some claims, rules have gotten tougher – horsemen have complained for years about the lack of uniformity. The disparate rules mean that a horse that’s “clean” in one jurisdiction may test positive in another – and a trainer trying his or her best may take a hit to both the pocketbook and the reputation.

What’s more, the inclusion of racetrack safety standards is a big step forward. While the industry has focused significantly on medication rules in recent years, having top-quality racing strips is critical to the well-being of horses and riders.

The bill will also likely lead to a ban on the use of raceday Lasix, which is either, depending on where you stand, a positive step towards drug-free racing bringing us into harmony with the rest of the world or a bad move that will harm horses and the betting public. As always, time will tell.

Who will pay, and how?

The legislation finesses that question a bit. Under the new law, the “Anti-Doping Authority” will create its own budget and allocate that among the states based on the number of starts made in each state. State racing commissions can elect to pay the requisite amount, though the legislation is silent on where the money may come from.

If the states pass on paying, then the Authority can bill participants in the sport. Which ones, and how?

Again, that’s left to the Authority to work out. The list of “covered persons” in the legislation includes “all trainers, owners and breeders, jockeys, racetracks, veterinarians, persons (legal and natural) licensed by a State racing commission and the agents, assigns, and employees of such persons and other horse support personnel who are engaged in the care, training, or racing of covered horses.”

Of course, you’d like to know what all this will cost. It seems likely to increase costs to horsemen, which is sub-optimal following a year in which purses have been down by over 25%.

In the end, though, you can’t help linking the indictments to the new rules. That means that the legislation will be a success if it accomplishes two things, and we can’t yet know whether it will. They are:

  1. Increased health and safety for horses and riders; and
  2. The rooting out and elimination of cheaters.

The first is self-evident and, of course, paramount.

But the second is critical, too. Racing’s problem – both competitively and perception-wise – is not ticky-tack overages of permitted medications, which constitute the vast majority of positives currently called. Nor is it trainers who miscalculate withdrawal dates and times. Or, for that matter, the use of Lasix.

It’s cheaters. It’s trainers and vets who pull off large-scale scams, as Navarro and Servis are alleged to have done. The cheats are defrauding the betting public, to say nothing of other riders, horsemen, and breeders. And they’re endangering horses and riders in the process.

If it gets rid of the cheats, you’d have to consider the bill a success. If not, it may end up being full of sound and fury, signifying not much at all.