02/02/2011 6:27PM

NTRA urged to heighten safety-program participation

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The National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Safety and Integrity Alliance should seek to have graded stakes and racing licenses restricted to tracks that have participated in the alliance's accreditation process, the program's independent monitor, Tommy Thompson, said on Wednesday.

Linking graded stakes and racing licenses to accreditation would be a significant incentive for tracks to participate in the alliance's program, which has accredited 19 tracks since being launched two years ago, far short of the alliance's goal, Thompson said.

In a report released on Wednesday, Thompson was critical of the number of tracks that had asked to be accredited so far through the voluntary program, and he said in a press conference organized by the NTRA that the alliance should start to explore ways to increase participation, including the tie-ins to graded stakes and racing licenses. Still, Thompson cautioned against adopting strategies that might appear too punitive.

"I'm a strong believe in using carrots whenever possible, rather than sticks," Thompson said.

Grades for stakes races are assigned by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's Graded Stakes Committee -- which began tying graded stakes to medication rules and practices at tracks six years ago. The committee assigns the grades to provide indications of the class of competition a horse faced as a runner when it or its progeny have been cataloged for bloodstock sales.

Dan Metzger, the executive director of the owners and breeders association, said that the organization had discussed the possibility of tying graded stakes to accreditation, but only in informal settings, what he called "cocktail talk, for lack of a better term." Those discussions sometimes included representatives of the alliance, according to Metzger.

"Without seeing anything formal in writing, the committee couldn't take it any further," Metzger said.
Metzger also pointed out that the existing medication requirements for tracks where graded stakes are run were based on the NTRA's recommendations for model medication rules and practices, which are part of the requirements for accreditation.

"The reason we have those is because those medication rules and practices are directly correlated to performance on the racetrack, which in turn reflects on the quality of the horses, which in turn reflects on the catalog designation," Metzger said.

Racing licenses, on the other hand, are awarded by racing commissions, typically on an annual basis. So tying licenses to accreditation would require the adoption of rules in 38 different racing jurisdictions, a difficult and time-consuming process. That process, however, could be streamlined in the future through ongoing efforts by some racing commissions to form a national committee that is capable of approving rules for all of the committee's participating jurisdictions. Those efforts are expected to pick up over the next year.

In his report, Thompson cited widespread financial problems facing racetracks over the past two years for the steep drop-off in tracks seeking accreditation, but he also said that the alliance suffered from a lack of resources and personnel, and that it has not done a sufficient job in publicizing its mission. The alliance has one full-time employee, Mike Ziegler, its executive director, and its funding is provided by accreditation fees. Thompson was also critical of the racetracks for not seeking out accreditation.

The alliance accredited 14 tracks in its first year of operation, but that number dropped to five in 2010. Ziegler said in the conference call that eight to 10 additional tracks are expected to be accredited this year, and that the alliance will need to re-accredit the 14 tracks certified in 2009 because accreditation expires after two years.

"I'm looking forward to a busy year," Ziegler said.

The alliance was launched following a widespread negative publicity of racing because of the breakdown of Eight Belles shortly after she finished second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. The barrage also jump-started efforts to study racing injuries and adopt practices that are now part of the accreditation process.