HISA chief: “Just give us a chance”

Lisa Lazarus, the new CEO of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) created by federal legislation, addressed state racing regulators Monday, making an appeal to “just give us a chance to get it right.”

Lazarus, who previously worked at the international governing body for equestrian sports and the National Football League, spoke as the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) kicked off its 88th Annual Conference on Safe Horses and Honest Sport at the Griffin Gate Marriott. The ARCI is the umbrella organization of the official rule-making bodies for professional horse and greyhound racing. 

Much of the four-day conference is centered on HISA, which will fundamentally change how American horse racing is overseen, taking over medication and testing policy and many aspects involving safety from what previously was the domain of the state racing commissions.

“This is hard work, significant change for all of us,” Lazarus told the assembly of regulators and other industry entities. “We’re going to do our very best to get it right. But we’re going to make mistakes. And we’re going to have to correct them, because it’s never been done before. So I just ask you to give us a chance to get it right. But if you have a criticism, you tell us and give us a chance to fix it and that we work together.”

So far, there have been far more questions than answers since Congress passed HISA’s enabling legislation as part of the massive Omnibus Spending and Covid-19 bill in December, 2020.

The ARCI conference is the first time that HISA has made so much of its staff available to speak in public. Lazarus also said that HISA expects to announce in May an agreement with an independent enforcement agency, as mandated by the federal law that goes into effect July 1. The United States Anti-Doping Agency, which for years had been promoted as being the enforcement agency, dropped out of negotiations in late December. 

While the safety and welfare components of HISA’s new regulations go into effect July 1, the new anti-doping and medication control policies have been deferred until early 2023.

Ed Martin, ARCI’s president and CEO, called HISA “a fact.”

“Unless some judge says something differently, we have to make it work because this is going to be the reality,” said Martin, referencing lawsuits the various horsemen’s associations, some states and other entities have filed in federal court challenging the legislation’s constitutionality. “We have a responsibility to the general public, the industry and these wonderful animals that are the cornerstone of our sport.”

Lazarus, who started her job in mid-February, said HISA’s mission comes down to three things: safety for the human and equine participants, national uniformity that will benefit those “who want to play by the rules,” and to approach the creation and implementation of rules “in a spirit of collaboration with the industry.”

“We are going to bend over backwards to find a way forward,” she said.

Washington Horse Racing Commission chair Bob Lopez, the outgoing ARCI chair, offered perspective through a different lens. Lopez suggested that HISA hurt itself by largely ignoring the state regulators and their institutional knowledge from being in the trenches making rules and policy for horse racing for decades.

“The ARCI has been and remains extremely concerned about the impact and implementation that the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act will have on Thoroughbred racing,” Lopez said in pre-recorded remarks after circumstances prevented him from attending the conference. “We see many exciting possibilities to improve upon the good work we collectively do. We also see how missteps and missed opportunities might make it more difficult for the industry, and those in it, to survive in a highly competitive marketplace.”

Lopez said ARCI offered “to help HISA through the maze of various state governments…. We offered our best advice on how to make this all work. We offered them free office space, free support staff, free committee coordination. Those offers, and much of our advice as to the realities of dealing with state government were often ignored.

“Perhaps it was the enormity of the challenge they face and the fact that almost all involved have never done this before. They are certainly in their rights to do so, but to ignore the wisdom of those who understand the ways of state government was inexcusable. I and many of my colleagues wonder why they chose to make this so difficult on themselves. While we welcome their new CEO, Lisa Lazarus, and wish her success, I fear what she has inherited will continue to be problematic to themselves and the industry they would help regulate.”

In his remarks, Lopez observed that many of the HISA-mandated safety rules set to go in effect July 1 were taken from the ARCI’s model rules. 

“You should take that as a compliment,” he said in his video remarks. “… I trust our new colleagues at HISA will come to appreciate the level of commitment and expertise we all share for the safety and honest sport of horse racing and the welfare of our human and equine participants.”

The conference comes at a pivotal time for horse racing, with the high-profile federal indictments of more than two dozen people in alleged horse-doping schemes two years ago. That was followed by the disqualification of 2021 Kentucky Derby first-place finisher Medina Spirit for a race-day overage of a therapeutic medication and subsequent 90-day suspension of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. And, too, sports betting is now legal in 33 states and is rapidly changing the wagering and regulatory landscape. 

“There are a lot of things people are anxious to know, and I would say, probably including Lisa,” Martin said in his introduction of Lazarus. “It’s complicated. It’s multi-layered. It’s not easy… I met Lisa in person for the first time (Sunday) night and I said, ‘I think you’ve got the worst job in racing.’ I think she knows that. But we all have challenges. We all have to try to do the right thing…. The survival of this industry depends on every aspect of it. We had a great conversation. All I can say is: This lady gets it. I look forward to working with her.”

For her part, Lazarus said, “I actually think I have the most phenomenal job and incredible opportunity.”

She praised the racing regulators, saying, “You are on the front lines…. We’re not coming in to say, ‘That work isn’t good work.’ We just want to take it further, and really focus on uniformity. That’s where racing has a little ground to catch up on compared with other sports.”

The big unknown remains how much the new Authority will cost and who will pay for it. “I understand that all of you are subjected to tight budgets,” Lazarus said. “The questions I get all the time are ‘This all sounds great, what is it going to cost?’ I wish I could answer that question standing here right now as far as specificity. What I can tell you right now is that we get it, we understand it, we’re sensitive to it. We’re going to work diligently to make sure that we use efficiencies, minimize costs when we can and also ultimately look for alternate funding models to help the industry bear the cost of these rules and regulations.”