The international racing world turns its attention to Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, KY this week for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, Friday and Saturday.

The iconic course in the heart of bluegrass country hosts the last and largest annual racing event in America for only the second time in Breeders’ Cup history.

It’s first iteration in 2015 saw Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh become the first, and so far only, horse to capture the “quad” with his sublime victory in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic on an overcast, blustery day.

Jockey Victor Espinoza salutes fans after 2015 BC Classic win on American Pharoah. ©Richard R. Gross

At this time last year, the Breeders’ Cup was held at a Santa Anita, CA racecourse embroiled in controversy over fatal injuries that plagued the course throughout its winter season. Doubts about safety, particularly of its dirt track, captured worldwide headlines. So also did questionable training practices and California state rules governing the sport.

A public whose interest in horseracing seemed increasingly diminished save during spring Triple Crown season—in itself controversial last year—demanded changes both within the sport and among the 38 separate jurisdictions independently governing it.

So outraged was the public that even California Governor Gavin Newsom and legislators at both the state and federal level called for investigation, demanding changes to better protect horses, riders and the wagering public.

It was a “Come to Jesus” moment for a tradition-bound sport that had long remained unchanged, seemingly unwilling to seriously consider even needed change. Now it was faced with unrelenting demands for fundamental and radical reforms, even outright abolition.

Controversial new rules, uncontroversial early results

Fast forward a year and a new, far more deadly issue plagues the globe. COVID-19 has captured worldwide headlines and provoked worldwide controversy over how best to craft rules to control the wildfire-like spread of the virus, trace its victims and diminish its staggering death toll.

Understandably lost in today’s headlines is the all-but-scant news about the changes that have been and will be enacted by racing’s governing jurisdictions.

The two most contentious issues have long been raceday use of the diuretic Furosemide, known commonly as Lasix, and the unregulated use of the whip.

Even the term “whip” has become controversial, with racing professionals and media increasingly favoring the softer-sounding term “crop.” The accessories are identical though often custom-crafted for individual riders in all equine sports.

California predictably acted first, but with attention paid to attitudes held by industry professionals and legislators in Kentucky, home of American racing. That state has a popular democrat governor in Andy Beshear who supports cautious regulation of one of the main drivers of his state’s economy. However, Kentucky legislators at both the state and federal level, much of the general public and a vocal majority of the state’s industry professionals, wrangle over a potential ban on raceday Lasix.

A ban on Lasix would be highly controversial and potentially ruinous to hopes that the industry would adopt a single, similar rule in all of its jurisdictions.

Lasix use is banned in virtually all international racing as a Performance Enhancing Drug, or PED, but is in near-universal use among U.S. trainers, who staunchly defend its use as a preventive measure for post-race bleeding. (Exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, also known as “bleeding,” refers to the presence of blood in the airways of the lung in association with exercise.)

Conversely, controls on the use of whips is opposed mainly by jockeys and their professional guild, regarding whips as a control and safety measure.

Rule 1688

California took the easy path first. On June 15, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) adopted a highly restrictive whip rule by a vote of 4-2. The two opposing Commission votes were cast by retired Hall of Fame jockey, Alex Solis, and Dennis Alfieri.

The new regulation, Rule 1688, restricts use of the whip to a maximum of six strikes during a race and only in an underhanded position.

Further, the whip cannot be used more than two times successively to give the horse a chance to respond, and whips must meet newly enacted CHRB standards that soften the impact of the blow on the horse.

Finally, use of the whip is completely prohibited after a race and during training workouts.

Jockeys will, however, be permitted to “show” the whip or tap the horse on the shoulder with the whip in the underhanded position.

Rule 1688 is likely to go into effect in 2021 with time to allow for discussion among all interested parties and understanding among all trainers and riders.

Active Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith and Aaron Gryder spoke for the Jockey Guild in urging opposition to the proposed rule to allow time for a possible adoption of a uniform national rule.

CHRB Chairman Gregory Ferraro responded by saying California should set the tone in promoting more humane treatment of racehorses rather than waiting for a national standard.

“This Board has a mandate from the Governor to make reforms in racing that contribute to the welfare of the horse,” said Ferraro. “We’ve been talking about this crop rule for two years. I think it’s time to stop procrastinating and pass a rule.”

Attorney Shane Gusman, legal counsel for the Jockeys’ Guild, said prior to the vote that guidelines based solely on public perception could lead to accidents and a negative impact on racing in California.

“Our concern is it’s not going to work, that there’s going to be real safety issues when a jockey is unable to perform his or her job,” Gusman told NBC reporter Beth Harris. “What will happen if you have an accident and either a jockey is going to get hurt or a horse is going to go down? You’re going to end racing in California. That’s just going to happen if you go down this road of trying to regulate based on perception rather than reality.”

Ferraro, however, countered saying, “We’re never going to please the jockeys. They don’t want to do anything but keep the status quo. We appreciate their argument. But it’s not going to fly in the face of the public demand that we quit hitting these horses.”

Kentucky follows California’s lead

Five days later, Kentucky fell in line behind California.

Matt Hegarty of the Daily Racing Form, explained the Kentucky rule, which had one major allowance beyond the California rule:

“The new rules would limit riders to six uses of the whip after the first furlong (1/8th mile)is run, with no more than two strikes in succession without giving the horse an opportunity to respond.”


“The  rules also would allow riders to use the whip ‘to avoid a dangerous situation that may harm another rider or horse,’ with stewards being given the discretion to determine whether the jockey’s use of the whip in those instances was justified.”

The new rule passed with a unanimous vote and support of both the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition and The Jockeys’ Guild after only two days of discussion.

Kentucky Horse Racing Commission general legal counsel Jennifer Wolsing said the rule is unlikely to be “enforceable” until 2021. It will not be in effect during this week’s Breeders’ Cup races in Kentucky.

A first promising regulatory result

While California’s new statewide whip rules are not yet in effect, lesser safety measures enacted at all California tracks by the CHRB following the spate of fatalities at Santa Anita had a regulatory first test during its recently concluded winter meet.

The result silenced critics of regulatory measures: There were no training or racing-related fatal injuries during the meet.

On Saturday, the California racing calendar moved to Del Mar in San Diego for its meet. Del Mar also experienced race-related fatalities last year at this time. “Where the turf meets the surf,” as the course is known, is slated to host next year’s Breeders’ Cup Nov. 5–6. There is no word on whether the new California rule would be in effect by that time.

Federal legislation on the horizon

In March the Stronach Group, which owns both Santa Anita Park and Golden Gates Fields in Berkley, CA, banned the use of all raceday medication at those tracks. Legislation to impose a national standard on drug use in racing is likely in the near term irrespective of the outcome of the Nov. 3 federal elections.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act (H.R. 1754) in September. Versions of the bill had stalled in the House during previous attempts, failing to even make it out of Committee hearings to the full House. The newest version of the bill was approved by the full House in a voice vote with no objections.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said at the time of the House bill’s passage he intended to introduce a final version of the bill to the Senate. Passage of the bill by a majority of the Senate would send the legislation to the President for signature and enactment.

The House bill creates a medication control authority to oversee racing’s drug testing and control at the federal level. It would be the first such national legislation in the U.S.

The Senate bill (S. 4547) promises to go ever further with two additional reforms: national oversight of the safety of all racetracks and a gradual ban on the use of raceday Lasix using an opt-in approach by each of the current 38 governing jurisdictions.  

It’s been a very good year for racing

Viewed from the same time last year, a tragic year for much of the world during a global pandemic has been a relatively good year for racing and its supporters.

The Breeders’ Cup returns to Keeneland for only the second time in BC history. ©Richard R. Gross

The rapid response of racing’s regulatory authorities to address safety issues responded to the long-voiced demands of animal activists and a concerned public. Though late in coming, the legislation that scurried through the brief time window ironically opened by an internal crisis will reshape the sport’s future and likely craft a more palatable public image for the sport.

COVID-19 resulted in the rescheduled shortening of the major sports seasons. Even racing rescheduled its single biggest event, the Kentucky Derby, from the First Saturday in May to Sept. 5. Still, the sport enjoyed a boost in television ratings over those of recent years throughout late spring and summer. Though absent spectators and with a reduced trackside media presence, horseracing was the lone remaining major sport still fulfilling a relatively normal active schedule.

The pandemic created a unique problem for the wagering public: the halt  or outright cancellation of major sports events left few other betting choices. In fact, until the basketball, ice hockey and baseball seasons were recast and resumed, bettors turned to computerized virtual sports contests for action. The remaining live sporting event that received the most betting was, wait for it: International ping pong. 

Wagering on racing however, though it varied, remained somewhat constant since there were races to bet on and a variety of ways to bet.

Breeders’ Cup has its hooves crossed

Last year saw the horse that crossed the Kentucky Derby finish line first, Maximum Security, disqualified for interference. That resulted in much internal bickering, a lengthy legal fight and a blue eye when another had already been blackened by the sport’s safety issues.

This year’s Kentucky Derby, in fact all three rescheduled Triple Crown races, went off without issue and featured exciting races with close results.

While regulatory measures wended their way in response to safety concerns, last year’s Breeders’ Cup returned to Santa Anita Park, ground zero of the safety debate. The two-day meet almost escaped unhindered. Almost.

In last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, the last race on the last high-visibility day of the year for the sport, tragedy again left its mark. Mongolian Groom, a four-year-old gelding, fractured his left hind leg nearing the finish line and was subsequently euthanized.

Fast forward to Keeneland. This year’s Breeders’ Cup will offer several much-anticipated racing matchups including a Classic that may well be a race that puts three horses in the gates, any one of which will be favored as the likely Horse of the Year with a win.

The Distaff, the Classic’s female counterpart, will likely see fan darling Swiss Skydiver challenge a racing legend, Monomoy Girl, making her final run on the track and into history. A win in that race could earn either horse HOY consideration.

Whether Swiss Skydiver is entered in the Classic or Distaff—she qualified and is pre-entered in both—will be decided later today when post positions are drawn for all races.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup offers the promise of several exciting races featuring American and international racing stars competing in this troubled year’s final, hopefully trouble-free, high-profile racing event.

Two days of exciting races absent controversy and tragedy at one of the sport’s most picturesque venues will be a final hoped-for good thing for racing in a year that will be remembered as otherwise forgettable for almost everything else.

Horse Network’s Richard R. Gross will be at the Keeneland Breeders’ Cup all this week offering blanket coverage of the competition and competitors, both animal and human. Let’s all hope for an exciting two days of racing and that all competitors come home safely.

Feature image: The Breeders’ Cup returns to Keeneland in the Fall. ©Keeneland