One-on-one with Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority CEO Lisa Lazarus

The head of the new authority talks the path to progress, pushback from certain corners of the racing world, and what’s next.
Lisa Lazarus, HISA CEO
Lisa Lazarus, HISA CEO(WKYT)
Updated: Jun. 30, 2022 at 3:30 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Last week, WKYT’s Garrett Wymer sat down with Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority CEO Lisa Lazarus ahead of the rollout of the authority’s first safety initiatives on July 1.

Below is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity. You can watch the full interview in the embedded video player.

Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority CEO Lisa Lazarus sat down with WKYT's Garrett Wymer at Keeneland ahead of the rollout of HISA's first safety rules.

Garrett Wymer, WKYT: You took your post in the middle of February knowing full well July 1 was...

Lisa Lazarus, HISA CEO: Imminent. Imminent. Right around the corner.

GW: ...the day. Right. I imagine it’s been a whirlwind.

LL: It really has been a whirlwind. Congress passed the law in December 2020 - there was a period of time when there was a nominating committee, and then the board was appointed, and the CEO search took place over a number of months - so when I took the job on February 15, 2022, I knew there was a lot of work ahead. But also a lot of incredible people who wanted to be involved in making this happen and making this come to life.

GW: What have your days been like? I was talking with you, I know you’ve been traveling back and forth a lot, been having stakeholder meetings and those kind of things. Talk to me about what you’ve been so busy doing.

LL: My days usually start around 6 a.m. or so, where I start calling the folks I know will be up that early taking care of horses, then I usually move into usually a pretty intense Zoom or in-person meeting schedule. What we’re trying to do is do everything possible to reach stakeholders and make sure they have the information they need ahead of July 1. As you know, July 1 is the effective date for the racetrack safety program, so right now our big focus is on registration to make sure people understand the registration process, how to register and what rules apply starting July 1.

GW: And how has registration been going? Have you been reaching everybody?

LL: At this stage, I would say it’s going quite well. As of today (June 23) we have about 27,000 registrants of persons and horses combined. I think like any new tech initiative, we had a few big hiccups and issues in the beginning that we had to sort out. We’ve tried to be as responsive as possible to those issues, and tried to be as service-oriented as possible. So those were a bit of a limitation at the beginning, but we’ve gotten them sorted out now. And you can see by the registrations themselves that the trajectory is going up dramatically day-to-day. I’m pretty optimistic we’ll be where we need to be come July 1.

GW: Do you know what kind of percentage-wise that might be compared to what you expect it to be come July 1?

LL: I think in terms of - if you’re looking at purely who needs to be racing July 1, because of course there are going to be some people who don’t actually need to start registering until later - who’s racing July 1, I think we’re at about 75 percent of where we need to be.

GW: Talk to me about the status of your agreements with the different states. I know that has been a work in progress over the past few months as well.

LL: I think one thing that’s important to understand is there’s sort of two parts of our state racing commission agreements. One is the opt-in to the financial assessment, and if I could just take a second to explain the funding model.

The way Congress wrote the Act is that once HISA establishes its budget and we have a budget for 2022, we then take that budget number - which is about $14.7 million for 2022 - and we allocate it amongst the thoroughbred racing states using a formula that our board determined is an equitable formula, believes is an equitable formula, that basically is a formula that’s comprised of purse structure, strength of purse, and number of starts. Then we take that formula and we apply it to each thoroughbred racing state to determine what their responsibility is for the overall budget.

So if you take Kentucky, for example, because obviously Kentucky is a strong racing state, it’s got a lot of starts, a strong purse, its number is $1.3 million for 2022. So the question then is, in the states that opt in to the financial assessment, what those states are essentially saying is, ‘We take the responsibility to determine how that’s going to be paid.’ States that opt out of the financial assessment, what then happens is that those fees still have to get paid, but they go to the racetracks to determine on the same analysis of strength of purse and starts, racetracks will be assessed a certain amount of money they will be responsible for collecting from their covered persons. And then they essentially have to reach an agreement with their horsemen or other covered persons that use their racetrack to present that to the HISA board for approval.

It’s five states that have opted in to the financial element. Those states are Kentucky, California, Colorado, Virginia and Minnesota. But just because a state opted out of the financial assessment, doesn’t mean it won’t be paid, it will just be paid differently through the racetracks’ collection progress. I also want to add that I don’t think if a state opted out financially that that’s a reflection of how they view HISA. They may just not have the ability through their state’s budgeting process to pay that assessment now.

The more important piece of the puzzle, in my opinion, is what we call the voluntary agreements. Those are the states that have agreed to work with us to implement the HISA regulations. So what that means is, there really are - and we can maybe talk about this a bit later - about seven rules that go into effect absolutely July 1 that are new. And we need to work with the states or the racetracks to make sure those rules are implemented, in addition to all the other state racing commission rules, because state racing commissions still have authority over the majority of what happens at the racetrack from day to day.

So with regards to those agreements, we have all - but, I’m going to say at this point, six states that we have not been able to reach an agreement with. What that means is that for states we’ve reached an agreement with, they can use existing staff. In other words, the state steward can just enforce these additional rules. The state steward would enforce the HISA crop rule, because that’s going to be a uniform rule come July 1, instead of here in Kentucky the Kentucky crop rule. If the state or the racetrack has not reached an agreement with us, we have to go out and hire a separate HISA steward - which is quite inefficient, especially because there aren’t that many rules that come into effect July 1 - and that’s going to be an additional cost for the racetrack. So we’re trying to avoid that happening, because we want to use efficiencies and we believe the staff exists at most states and racetracks to implement HISA rules.

GW: July 1, you mentioned those rules that will be going into effect. Just give us a little rundown on those.

LL: For simplicity, the racetrack safety program is the program that goes into effect July 1. The anti-doping and medication control program is not going to come into effect until January 2023. So on the racetrack safety program, we explain them - I’m not going to bore you with rule numbers - in two buckets. There’s the accreditation bucket and then these additional hard rules that come into effect.

The accreditation bucket are those things that are really important that racetracks need to do to come up to the standard level that’s required under the racetrack safety program. Those rules are a work in progress. We’re going to work with racetracks to get them up to that level over a period of time.

The other rules - what are the 2200 series - those are the hard rules that come into effect. Those are the uniform crop rule, enhanced jockey safety requirements like a concussion baseline test and physicals for jockeys - which already is happening in certain states, but not all states - there’s enhanced responsibility around veterinary records and both the uploading and maintenance of veterinary records, there’s enhanced veterinary inspections, there’s the voided claim rule. And that’s essentially the universe of rules that come into effect - in addition to the registration rule, that everyone, every covered person and covered horse, needs to be registered July 1 in order to race July 2.

GW: Is HISA ready for the rollout on July 1?

LL: We are ready for the rollout on July 1. Part of what we took a long time to really understand and consider is what we really could implement with consistency and with confidence on July 1. That’s why you see some delayed implementation around some of the rules, and some delays with regards to getting up to what the rules require. But the rules that will be enforced consistently and without any kind of delay, we are ready to enforce those rules.

GW: I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but it really hasn’t been a whole lot of time for y’all to really kind of build this thing from the ground up. I’d imagine that has come with its own share of frustrations and challenges.

LL: Congress was reacting to a lot of horse welfare concerns and integrity concerns that they saw in the industry, and I have to probably say a particularly big thank you to Leader McConnell and Rep. Barr, because they were really chief architects of this bill because the industry is so important to Kentucky. There was a short timeline - as you know, I’ve only been in the job four months - but this is what Congress required of us and we’ve tried to rise to the occasion to deliver the best program that we can in the period of time that we have.

We’re reliant in a large part on some of the stakeholder groups, like some of the horseman’s groups, to also educate their stakeholders, and so where the horseman’s groups have done that well it’s been a lot easier, and where they haven’t done it as well it’s been a bit more challenging so we have to come in and fill that void. But what we’re trying to do as much as possible is reach everyone. And at this stage, we really have full court press, a full communications plan out there. What I’ve said, and I think people would back me up, it may take a day or two but we answer every email from horsemen and every text from horsemen. We get back to people and we have gone - we’ve gone wherever we’ve been asked to go. We’ve gone to Louisiana, we’ve gone to Texas, we’ve been here. We’ve done multiple Zooms answering questions.

We’re trying to make ourselves as available as possible so everyone can feel like they know and understand what they need to do as of July 1. And as I’ve said, what I think is going to happen on July 2 is there’s going to be like a collective sigh of relief across the industry. Because I think what horsemen are going to realize is that what’s required of them is really reasonable and doable, and that we’ve been practical and pragmatic about the implementation and the phasing.

GW: There has been some pushback though that y’all have faced. Not to mention two separate lawsuits that I know of. How has that impacted your efforts to get things going here?

LL: With regards to the lawuits, it hasn’t impacted my personal efforts as leading HISA to get things done, because what I always sort of tell people is that’s kind of a different conversation, and everyone, every group, has their right to challenge HISA. But now, as you know, the two federal courts that have looked at those cases have determined that HISA is constitutional. While they’ve been appealed, there’s no chance that any of those appeals will be heard and decided by July 1, so what I’ve always said is, until someone tells me different, HISA is federal law and I’m going to do my best to make sure it’s rolled out and implemented to the best of my ability.

I do think, though, that maybe some stakeholder groups who believed that those cases would be successful have perhaps not been as involved in educating their stakeholders about what needs to be done by July 1.

GW: That goes into my follow-up here: Have you run into pockets that don’t really want to cooperate or that haven’t cooperated quite to the level that...

LL: Of course we have. And we’re doing our best to deal with that and to help those groups and those persons and those states overcome it. Change is hard. This industry has been operating the way it’s been operating for centuries. Horse racing is really the only sport - I’m going to call it a sport; it’s also an industry, but it’s also a sport - that I’m aware of that doesn’t have one national governing body, one national uniform set of rules. And I believe that’s incredibly important to make the sport safer and fairer, but also for the public image of the sport. And I actually think that once time goes on and there’s a recognition that this change is really going to be for the better, I think the vast majority of stakeholders will realize that having the same crop rule in Kentucky as Minnesota as Louisiana as Florida is actually good for horsemen and good for the sport.

GW: Talk to me a little bit more about that, because, this is a sport we’re talking about that has been under pretty intense scrutiny for the past few years now. How will something like this, in your mind, help the public image but also ensure that everything is being done as safely as it possibly can be?

LL: No. 1 I think we have an obligation to the public and to the generations where our social license to operate is sometimes questioned to show that we are doing our best, we are listening, and at the center of everything we do is the welfare of the horse. That for me - I always tell people when I’m faced with a difficult decision and it’s complicated and I need to evaluate what I recommend to my board that we do going forward, I always put it through the horse welfare litmus test. At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is protect the welfare of the horse, the welfare of the people who ride and train the horses as well.

And that’s something I think, first of all, that we’re going to do well - it’s going to take us a little time to do it as well as we’d like to do it - but we’re going to do that well, and I believe that’s going to enhance our public image, and also it’s going to be better for the sport itself. And also, internationally, it’s important that we have an image that we can live up to. U.S. horse racing, especially Kentucky, is incredible well-regarded and incredibly watched and viewed as an important piece of the puzzle for global horse racing. So we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to live up to those expectations.

GW: As I understand it, July 1 is also the day that you will submit for approval the anti-doping rules. What sort of feedback have you gotten? Have you gotten a lot of feedback?

LL: We will submit them to the FTC in July. We’ve gotten actually some really good feedback with regard to the approach we’ve taken in this new draft, which separates out doping and banned substances from therapeutics. It has a different sort of approach. Both approaches take those categories of substances seriously. But the approach to the banned substances and doping substances is more of an approach that you’d take to really clear cheating and to clear performance enhancement or the intention to enhance the performance of horses in a way that’s prohibited.

With therapeutics, which is certainly a violation - we need to be very careful about pain masking, etc. of horses - but also recognizing that these are substances that are allowed to be used between races, just not while racing. So that split of the regimes I think has been really well received by the public and by horsemen as well, and we’ve gotten some really - obviously there’s suggestions around technical elements and how certain components work - but overall the feedback has been quite positive on the draft that’s currently been posted.

GW: Let me ask you on a personal note - you’ve come into a tough job here. What made you want to be CEO of this new authority?

LL: For me, I love horses and I love the sport. I didn’t come from horse racing, I came from the sport horse world. But the kind of love of the horse and essentially the initiatives I was involved in with the International Equestrian Federation are really quite similar in that respect. I saw an industry - when I was a kid, my grandfather was a horseman and my father loved horse racing and I would go to the track all the time. My kids have no interest in it. I could see if you’re outside Kentucky maybe, that we don’t have that generation to generation passing on of the sport, and I saw it as an opportunity to make a difference so that we do have a sport that’s there for our children and grandchildren and for generations to come - not just in Kentucky but across the country. Because I think for the sport to be healthy in Kentucky it has to be healthy everywhere.

GW: You mentioned some of your previous background in equine sports. You also have experience with the NFL. Talk to me about how some of your background helped prepare you for what you’re doing now.

LL: I spent a decade at the NFL, which was a phenomenal time in my life - an incredible experience. I had so many positive role models and good mentors. Some of the courage I developed in telling NFL owners that a particular player’s - because I was representing a lot of the teams in grievance arbitrations with the players - that a particular case was not a good case, and that player would likely prevail, or we should settle, and also communicating a collective bargaining issue that they might not be thrilled about. That allowed me to build courage and be ready and understand that how you communicate something is such a big part of the puzzle. If you tell people why you’re doing it, you listen to what people have to say and you explain the rationale, you typically, if you have someone who generally wants to listen and generally wants to be part of whatever’s being done in the sport, you can have a lot of success. I learned some of my most fundamental communication skills while I was at the NFL.

GW: Just bottom-line for me why the uniformity that’s going to come from these changes, from having HISA - just bottom-line for me the importance that uniformity will provide the sport.

LL: I think it’s really difficult for members of the public who are not involved to understand - let’s just take the Triple Crown, because that’s a moment in time when the industry really has the chance to project what we’re doing to the general public. Let’s say they watch the Derby and see one crop rule at the Derby, then they go to Pimlico and they watch the Preakness and see that’s a different rule. There’s a lot of elements to the crop rule, but generally it’s six strikes in Kentucky, it’s 10 strikes in Maryland. Then they go to Belmont and it’s another rule. I think that’s really hard both for the betting public to understand and for the general public to understand.

And I think also that does connect to horse welfare. And if you look at some of the anti-doping cases that have been brought over the years, not understanding why a trainer might be suspended in one place but able to run somewhere else, and able to challenge in one court and another court - HISA’s going to take all of that over come January. There will be one uniform appeals process and due process that is available to all horsemen to challenge their cases. But it’s going to be uniform. it’s going to go up through an arbitration system, up through the FTC system, but you won’t be able to go into court anymore to challenge an anti-doping suspension once we take control of that space in January 2023.

GW: Fast-forward a few years for me, once everything is in place and everyone has had a chance to get used to it. What are you hoping to see - where do you hope HISA is, where do you hope the industry and sport are, a couple years from now?

LL: Probably the No. 1 thing I hope, I hope the majority of our stakeholders and participants understand and see that there is value in this, and that some of that resistance and trepidation and anxiety go away. I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re going to lose their job or their world is going to be entirely different come HISA implementation date. I want, I really want, the racing world to understand that we’re here to help. We’re here to make racing better.

The second is, I hope that there’s a recognition within the public sphere that horse racing takes care of its horses and its people, that welfare and health and safety and integrity are our most important values and we will stand behind them, we will enforce them.

What I also really hope - and I’m optimistic about - is that we have more investment in the sport, we have more owners, we have more people that want to be part of it and contribute both financially and in other ways because they see it as fairer, they see it as safer, they see it as having the values they associate with and they’re proud to associate with. I think if we can make those things happen, it will be a tremendous success.

GW: What do you want the takeaway to be, especially for folks here in the Lexington area who may be a fan of the sport or maybe not, but it impacts them because it’s such a big industry here?

LL: What I want the takeaway to be is that this is good for horse racing. Again, we’re going to bring in rules, a philosophy and an ethos that’s focused on the horse, that’s focused on horse welfare and is focused on safety and integrity. What’s good for horse racing is absolutely going to be good for Kentucky. For Kentucky to continue to enjoy all the benefits it gets from a healthy, vibrant sport is going to be assisted, in my view, by the industry as a whole being healthier and more robust. As we like to say at HISA, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ That’s what we hope the takeaway to be.

GW: Should this have been done sooner?

LL: You know, probably. There were a lot of efforts over a number of years from people who love the game to get this bill passed, and it took some time. Now that we’re here I think we have to just seize the moment and seize the day and do everything to make it work. This has to work. HISA cannot fail. This is horse racing’s moment in time. All of us at HISA - we have an incredible board, a great team of people - we are going to kill ourselves to make sure that it is a success and we don’t lose this moment in time, and that we use it to the best of our ability - because it’s incredibly important to horse racing.

GW: Why is it such a crucial time?

LL: I don’t know that we’re going to get another chance. if we can’t make HISA work, if it isn’t successful, if we don’t ultimately get stakeholder buy-in, if we don’t operate properly, if we lose the lawsuit, we’re going to lose that chance to actually come together as an industry and do what’s best for the industry. This is an industry mandate, this is an industry initiative. And as an industry we need to make it work, because I don’t know that we’ll get another chance.

Barton Bill, WKYT photographer: It seems like in the long run this is going to be easier on the horsemen, it’s going to be easier on the jockeys, it’s going to be easier on the operators. Fifty sets of rules is 50 sets of problems.

LL: One thing that I think horsemen haven’t really fully digested is that uniformity is really going to help them. If you’re a jockey, if you can actually get yourself comfortable with - and they will, for sure they will, because they’re tremendous horsemen - with what the crop rule is, HISA’s crop rule, you don’t have to recalibrate every time you move your horse to a different state. Same with trainers. Once they get used to our system, our rules, it’s one set of rules across the country. I think it’s honestly going to be good, I think it’s honestly going to be recognized as helpful.

There was a great article - I think maybe Ray Paulick wrote it not that long ago - about the rollout of Obamacare and all the resistance to Obamacare in the beginning, but ultimately after a year or two - and this applies to Kentucky, my understanding is - everyone kind of turned around and said, ‘You know, we actually have much better access to health care now.’ But it’s going to take a bit of time for the kinks to be ironed out, but ultimately when the dust settles, I believe there’s going to be the realization that uniform is actually a pretty cool thing, you know?

GW: Is there anything you want to add that we haven’t touched on or that you want to reiterate?

LL: The only thing I want to add is, and I say this a lot, but the timelines have been aggressive. We have had to do a lot in a relatively short period of time. But we’re doing it to the best of our ability in the way that we think is best for the horse and best for the horsemen. If we get a couple things wrong, we’re going to reevaluate. And we just ask for some grace from the industry to understand what a tremendous initiative this is. We’re focused, we think, on the right things and we think we have good rules, but there’s going to be some amount of work in progress.

This is a brand new regulatory regime. I can’t think of a single sport or governing body that had to start with a blank piece of paper. We started with a blank piece of paper, particularly on racetrack safety. So give us a chance to show that it really is going to be valuable, successful, and then we can all work together. The industry needs to come together for this to be successful.

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