The 148th edition of the Kentucky Derby will be held on Saturday, as the event that usually opens the time of the year when public interest in horse racing reaches its highest level.
But this time, the races are under the shadow of suspicion.
The sport has been hit with scandals in recent years, including the disqualification of last year’s Derby winner, a doping plot involving trainers and vets, as well as a punishment for the most famous trainer.
The inability of horse racing to properly supervise itself came to the attention of the federal government in 2020. This led to the Horse Racing Safety and Integrity Act (HISA) which will go into effect on July 1.
The law will be implemented in stages. The racetrack safety program will be implemented immediately. The anti-doping and drug testing rules will come into force in early 2023, delegating their legislation to the states for the time being.
“We have to do it,” acknowledged the new president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Tom Rooney. “We need to have the same standards in each of the jurisdictions.”
Unlike the headquarters that govern the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, the 38 horseracing states operate with a mix of rules that vary from racetrack to racetrack. Horses, owners, trainers and jockeys move between the different states to compete. Different local facilities recognize penalties imposed elsewhere, but inconsistencies create confusion and make it possible to circumvent the system.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is serving a 90-day suspension imposed by Kentucky race officials that will keep him out of Saturday’s race, which he has won six times.
The punishment comes in the wake of 2021 Derby winner Medina Spirit failing a post-race drug test. The colt was subsequently disqualified.
Trainer Jorge Navarro is serving a five-year prison sentence for his role in a horse doping ring. He was also fined $25.8 million.
Another coach, Jason Servis, will go to trial in the same case next year.
Navarro and Servis are among a dozen people charged in the FBI investigation.
Despite the blow to the sport’s reputation, there is interest in the possible changes the law will bring.
HISA has already been challenged in court.
Lisa Lazarus began her work as executive director of the HISA board of directors in February. This week she completed her first big job: hiring an independent agency to monitor drug and anti-doping rules.