Off the Pace: What they’re saying about HISA

There has been much controversy since Congress passed legislation creating the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) as part of an omnibus spending and Covid-19 bill in December 2020. That chatter hasn’t necessarily quieted of late, following lawsuits from horsemen’s groups and separate spates of fatalities in Maryland and Kentucky in which HISA seemed largely absent.

Who in the racing community would oppose safety and integrity? It is a rhetorical question because no one of sound mind would oppose those outcomes. However, just as in handicapping or life, things are never as simple as they seem. 

I recently posed an open-ended question to a few racing insiders to get their opinion as to the general provisions and rollout of HISA.

Perhaps just as revealing to me as the answers was the number of people who did not wish to respond; about as many declined to speak publicly as were willing to do so. Those preferring silence cited three main reasons.

First, some of those said that they would be better off not to comment. To be fair the regulation rollout is still somewhat of a moving target, so I was not surprised that a number of individuals did not want to go on record. That said, it was clear that some feared blowback for being vocal.

A few respondents noted that they were “not clear” on the regulations and did not feel they knew enough to comment. This may have been a sincere concern but may be just as indicative of the confusion of the rollout as much as the lack of time or effort from these individuals to educate themselves on this issue.


Last they were two individuals who were involved with the implementation of HISA who felt it would be bad form to comment publicly.

As for those who did comment, one common thread was the desire for consistent, uniform regulation across all tracks.

Jenine Sahadi was a major trainer on the Southern California circuit for nearly twenty years before retiring in 2011. She won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in back-to-back years, 1996 and 1997, with two different horses in Lit de Justice and Elmhurst. Sahadi currently serves as the President of the Edward J. Gregson Foundation, a non-profit organization that develops programs to benefit those who work on the backstretch of California thoroughbred tracks. 

She stated, “I have been in favor of one set of national rules forever.”

Jockey Tyler Conner agreed. He has been one of the most consistent jockeys in the Mid-Atlantic, with approximately 1,100 wins in his career.

“To keep it simple, I think the main positive is that all rules and regulations are the same country-wide,” he said.

Jockey Lane Luzzi, who will be returning to the mid-Atlantic from Texas this summer, added, “I think as long as it is done the right way, I think everybody should be in favor of fair racing and consistent rules across venues. It has been no secret that some people are not happy with everything that has been presented so far. It is something that is so new that it is going to take a while to be able to perfect. I hope that it will be beneficial to everybody down the road.”

Jesse (Jesus) Cruz is an up-and-coming trainer most noted for handling the stock of Wasabi Stables at Tampa Bay Downs during the winter and Monmouth Park during the warmer months of the year.

“I don’t know if I can put it into a plus/minus form, but what I like about HISA and their new medication format is it will force trainers to use medication for recovery, and not to mask any problems going into races,” he observed.

That said, many people believed that the rollout of the new program left something to be desired.

“The biggest minus for me with HISA is their rollout of everything,” Cruz noted. “They can never give trainers or vets straight clear answer with anything. Most of us that follow rules want to do just that, follow the rules, but HISA never makes the rules clear and when asked they never seem to get back with us.”

He continued, “It would be like teaching someone how to play basketball. You tell them you have to dribble the ball every step, but you are allowed to pick the ball up and walk with it at times. Then the person asks you, ‘Well, how many steps can I walk with it?’ Then you respond, ‘Well, just do it in the game and when you do it wrong, I’ll tell you.’ That’s how they really went about things, and it just didn’t seem right to me.”

Sahadi also made an analogy. “Let’s just say that we try to run first-time starters that are fit and well-prepared. I wouldn’t run a firster two turns with two three-furlong works. The HISA roll out has been the equivalent of a poorly prepared first-time starter. A little transparency would be nice. That’s what we really all want.”

One of the HISA regulations that has come into full effect is its restriction on the use of the riding crop, or whip. Those rules permit riders to strike the horse on the hindquarters no more than six times in a race and require that s/he leave sufficient time for the horse to respond before striking again.

Riders exceeding the six-strike limit are subject to fines and suspensions. When they strike the horse 10 or more times, the horse is disqualified from purse earnings.

“A big negativity in my opinion is the fines and suspensions they give out for minor infractions, especially whip violations,” said jockey Tyler Conner. “Horses should not be disqualified, costing an owner money, because of a whip violation.”

The whip violations also seem to be a sore point (no pun intended) for jockey agent John Sciametta, who said. “I don’t really get caught up in all that HISA stuff. To me the whip situation is the biggest joke I’ve ever seen in horse racing, considering the whips they use nowadays are so light.”

John Weilbacher, an agent who handles the book of star rider Jaime Rodriguez, commented tellingly, “I don’t have much to say about HISA really. We have been dealing with the whip regulations for a while, and as far as medication rules, I’m not really involved with that stuff. It seems a little over-regulated, but if it creates more of a level playing field, I guess it’s good.”

In his short response, Weilbacher reflects both the uncertainty and the hope that many in racing have towards HISA. His use of the word “guess” may sum up perfectly what can be said currently about HISA’s consequences both intended and unintended.