08/20/2009 11:00PM

Safety group moves ahead


DEL MAR, Calif. - It was never clear why "integrity" had to be part of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance in the first place. Isn't the safety part a big enough job? And if you get the safety part right, doesn't integrity follow?

This is the group, funded by racetracks and racing organizations, that goes from track to track like a band of diagnostic auto mechanics, equipped with clipboards and a wish list of behaviors. They kick the tires and check the oil and make sure the wiper blades work, even in dry weather, and then they go home and write up a report.

When the Alliance was announced last spring and inspections commenced, this reporter reacted with a skeptical "about time." It only took the NTRA 11 years to finally start doing what it should have been doing from the start. There is no business that does not reap great rewards from an autonomous department of self-improvement.

Only one thing, though . . . everybody passes. Actually, every track but one so far, including Saratoga, which joined the list of accredited tracks this week that includes Arlington, Belmont, Hollywood Park, Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Delaware Park, and Monmouth Park (tracks are inspected only while they race).

This is either very reassuring, or very distressing. Are America's racetracks in such tip-top shape that there are no worries, so be happy? Or is a thumbs-up from the Safety and Integrity Alliance nothing more than window dressing? An elaborate public-relations stunt?

As it turns out, the answer is neither one. The Code of Standards being applied by Alliance inspection teams includes five main areas of concern - injury reporting and prevention, safer racing environment, medication and testing, jockey safety and health, and aftercare for retired racehorses - with numerous sub-categories to each.

The integrity component was underlined this week when the Alliance announced the formation of a committee that would offer information and guidance on the issue of retired racehorses. The Alliance already consults with official veterinarians on medication issues and with jockeys on local safety concerns. Now, representatives of groups concerned with the fate of racehorses no longer in the racing and breeding pools will have a seat at the Alliance table. This is a good thing.

Mike Ziegler, a former racetrack executive in California, is executive director of the Alliance. He explains that a track can score low in some categories and high in others. If the low scores are quickly fixable, and the track agrees to get them fixed, accreditation usually follows. If the low scores are a result of more entrenched policies - either at a corporate or state level - then a track (like Pimlico) will get provisional accreditation while those policies are addressed.

"I don't think the tracks that have applied are going to be the ones that have issues anyway," Ziegler said. "I don't think they'll want to be told they're not accreditable. They already know the answers to the questions - the Code of Standards is totally public. Finger Lakes, for example, wants to be accredited, and they're fixing things prior to turning in the application so things are up to speed.

"You know, for instance, if your horses are prerace inspected, or if you're participating in the Equine Injury Data Base, and you know what it takes to get that done," Ziegler went on. "If you don't, you're not going to get accredited."

Currently, racing is being roiled by two hot-button topics of concern (three if you count getting Zenyatta and Rachel in the same gate, but Betfair is on top of that). The integrity of betting pools is being battered by late odds changes, a nagging and unnecessary symptom of the simulcast universe. And then there is the issue of track surfaces, specifically the question of plowing forward with synthetic technology or pouring equivalent resources into improving more conventional dirt.

"The debate about track surfaces could go on forever," Ziegler said. "The scientists don't even agree. What we do require a track to do is participate in studies to try and gather data, which would then correlate with the Equine Injury Data Base to see if there are factors that contribute to increase in injuries. If a track doesn't participate, if they're not at least trying to learn from what's going on on their own racetrack, that's a big slash against them."

As for the integrity of betting pools, that is not yet an Alliance mandate.

"Each year, the Code of Standards will be racheted up," Ziegler said. "It will be harder to pass in 2010 than this year, and harder still in 2011, when this year's group of tracks will need to be re-accredited.

"I think some tracks thought they'd just get a free pass," Ziegler added. "But that just wasn't the case. In fact, it is becoming competitive and cooperative at the same time. The operations departments of Churchill Downs, Keeneland, and Turfway Park are going to be inspecting each other. I had representatives of one track tell me they didn't just want to pass, they wanted find out how to get the absolute highest score possible in each category. I love to hear that."

Ziegler's ultimate goal for the Safety and Integrity Alliance is world domination, in the good sense.

"What if a racetrack took it really seriously, and management looked at their simulcast product and said, 'We don't want to import any races from tracks that aren't accredited'?" Ziegler wondered. "That would be a big step.

"Hopefully, down the road, participants in the sport will only participate at an accredited track," Ziegler added. "They would run their horses and ride their races, and maybe even bet their dollars only at tracks that have made the commitment to these issues of safety and integrity."