HISA is Here: First Month Shows Little Progress, Frustrates Bettors

Chris Adams

If you’ve talked to a horse player in the last several months, you have heard about HISA. The Horse Racing Integrity & Safety Act went into effect on July 1. The premise was to create a uniform set of regulations and standards to make horse racing a better sport.

The Wild West

Horse racing is a unique sport. The same set of equine and human athletes participate at different tracks around the country. What many fail to realize is that each state has its own racing commission and its own rules.

For comparison imagine that all the teams in the NFC East got to make up their own rules for PAT. When you played in Dallas you would kick the old chip shot extra point, but in Washington you had to kick the new longer extra point. Meanwhile in the Meadowlands, the Giants decided you have to go for two after every score. In Philly touchdowns are worth 7 points and you just leave your kicker at home.

To any football fan this would be ridiculous, but it is the daily reality in horse racing.

Jockey Rules

Jockey uses crop at Santa Anita Park | Photo Credit Eclipse Sportswire

Much like the football metaphor, jockeys deal with this all the time. The most talented riders will ship around the country to find their way onto the backs of the best mounts. This means that jockeys will often jet set to different destinations for an isolated racing day. This creates some serious issues.

In New York at Saratoga Irad Ortiz could use his whip freely, but if he flew out to ride a horse in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar he would be limited in the use of the crop. If the year was 2021 and he had made a trip to Monmouth Park to ride in the Haskell he couldn’t use the whip at all unless in emergency situation.

It has always been the position of the stewards that it is up to the jockey to be aware of how the rules differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Stewards Adjudication

Stewards Inquiry sign flashes on the tote at Saratoga | Photo Credit Saratoga Live

This inconsistency probably has no cure. Even the invention of replay booths and challenges did little to improve the subjective nature of officiating. Nonetheless, like any sport horse racing has its referees called the stewards. Their interpretations of fouls can vary widely from state to state.

Their choice to disqualify or “keep a horse up” following an inquiry can cost bettors serious green.

Medication

Perhaps one of the biggest inconsistencies is the use of medication. Horses are like people and intense physical activity can lead to pain. That pain needs to be treated. However, different states had different laws about different medications that could be administered and when.

FILE - John Velazquez atop Medina Spirit competes during the 146th Preakness Stakes horse race at Pimlico Race Course, Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Baltimore. Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit collapsed and died after a workout Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, at Santa Anita. The 3-year-old colt trained by Bob Baffert had just completed five furlongs in his second workout since finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic a month ago at Del Mar, according to Craig Robertson, Baffert’s attorney. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
Medina Spirit | Photo Credit Associate Press

In 2021 the first horse to cross the line in the Kentucky Derby was the late Medina Spirit. The colt tested positive for betamethasone the day after the race. The medication is itself legal if out of the system on race day. The eventual disqualification was not for a banned substance, but a legal drug overage.

That overage led to Bob Baffert being suspended from Kentucky and New York, but not Maryland, California, and New Jersey.

Need for Change

The issues above outline the horse and jockey inconsistencies in the sport. In reality those are just the tip of the iceberg. There are other issues surrounding money flashes that appear to come in after the gates have opened. There are inconsistent rules about whether entries must be coupled when they share connections. The way each track deals with late scratches can be different based on the state commission. The list goes on.

With all of the issues that are present the need for a unified governing body has been a need for some time.

HISA Response to Racing’s Inaction

HISA Logo
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority was created by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act | Image Credit HISA

Horse racing is an industry stuck in its old ways. Despite many within the sport pushing for a unified set of rules to govern all jurisdictions, the game continued to drag its feet until it was too late.

In 2020 after a number of mainstream media stories surrounding horse fatality numbers the Horse Integrity and Safety Act was singed into law to do what the industry had failed to do for years. It went into effect on July 1.

HISA Takes Effect

Many in the industry feared HISA. The private institution created with government authority did little to ingratiate themselves to the horse racing community. Horse industry stake holders were largely left out of important decisions.

The board was packed with lawyers and corporate types from outside of the industry. The July 1st implementation deadline loomed with horse racing unsuccessfully pushing for a delay to the program.

The Industry Blinks

After months of intense fighting and struggles trying to register the industry resigned itself to life under HISA. Owners registered themselves and their horses. Uniform medication policies and riding crop rules went into place around the country and the organization began doling out punishments for offenders.

HISA and the Betting Public

In general the betting public should welcome consistency in the rules of horse racing. It means less guess work for handicappers trying to figure out who will run the best race. It also should usher in a new era of integrity in the wagering markets and consistent scratching rules across all jurisdictions.

Not Delivering

Unfortunately, right now the hastily rolled out entity has not delivered on those possible benefits to the horse player. The consistency with the races will take some getting used to, but like the tapeta surface at Gulfstream Park, players will adapt to the new circumstances.

The biggest issue was the loss of opportunity to very competitive racing in one defiant jurisdiction.

Texas Takes a Stand

All of the major racing jurisdictions gave way and let HISA into their product except for 1. The state of Texas objected and did not come into compliance with the new organization. They refused to join HISA or be governed by its rules. They maintained that the Texas Horse Racing Commission was the superior law of the land for horse racing in the lone star state.

A Costly Decision for Texas Racing and Bettors

The decision to resist did not come without consequence. The refusal to join HISA put an immediate stop to interstate simulcast.

Tracks like Lone Star Park and Sam Houston Race Course have developed a nice little niche appeal with horse players across the nation. However, due to the refusal to join HISA their television signals are no longer permitted outside the state of Texas and all online platforms like TVG, DRF Bets, and Twinspires had to remove the tracks as wagering options.

Devastating Impact

It didn’t take long for the economic impact of HISA to be felt in Texas. On June 25th the track handled over $1.7 million. The first day without a simulcast as a result of their failure to comply was $215,000. That’s an 85% decrease in handle!

Sam Houston track announcer Nick Tammaro even suggested on the In The Money Podcast Network that if the state doesn’t figure something out the track will not be able to open it’s doors for a season that includes some really competitive turf racing.

The Legacy of HISA

How history views the creation of HISA is still in process. Like any new endeavor there are growing pains, but one thing is sure. After the debut month of the organization’s authority, the comment line reads “stumbled out of the gate”.

Owners, trainers, jockeys, and even the horse players have seen little positive impact from the creation of the organization in its first month of existence. There is a long way to go for the program to deliver on its promise to make horse racing a better sport for all.

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