Arnold: Horsemen must speak out – loudly – about policies that ignore environmental realities

Open letter to horsemen by trainer Rusty Arnold:

I received notification and today am accepting the penalties for a horse in my care testing for a controlled substance under current HISA/HIWU regulations. For the 2-year-old filly Figgy testing for a trace level of a Tramadol metabolite, I will start a seven-day suspension tomorrow, pay a $1,000 fine and have two points on my record. Figgy’s owner is out the $40,000 winner’s purse. 

To be clear: I have no issue that I have a positive post-race test. The problem is why it is a positive.

We can’t afford to just stand on the rail expressing outrage whenever one of our training colleagues gets ensnared in HISA and HIWU testing policies and penalties that defy common sense and ignore the realities of our environment. 

We need to speak not amongst ourselves but to speak up together to regulators — loudly — that the system in place is unfairly hurting livelihoods and reputations while doing nothing to make our horses and industry safer. I’m not anti-HISA (Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority). But I’m very much against some of the policies they’ve put in place — and allowed its enforcement arm HIWU (Horseracing Integrity & Welfare Unit) to put into place — in determining drug and medication violations.

Any trainer who thinks this can’t happen to them has their head in the sand. Your turn is coming — as mine just did.

On January 27, 2024, I was informed by email that I was facing a possible controlled-substance violation for Figgy’s post-race test following her victory in a December 27 maiden race at Turfway Park. (That’s 31 days after the race – so much for HISA and HIWU vowing to be much quicker in turning around lab results.)

Tramadol is a human painkiller for which there are almost 30 million prescriptions in America. In Europe, a survey of 90 wastewater plants in 18 countries found Tramadol in 100 percent of the wastewater samples, according to research published in 2013.

Figgy had a finding of less than 3 nanograms (parts per billion) per milliliter only in urine. Researchers who have studied Tramadol and its metabolites in horses recommend a conservative no-effect threshold level of 50 ng/mL in urine, determining that anything below that has no impact on performance.

I am accepting my penalty and will move on. However, I do 100 percent deny giving or instructing anyone on my staff to administer Tramadol to Figgy.

We interviewed every person who came in contact with Figgy and no one had a Tramadol prescription. Figgy is under 24/7 state-of-the-art video surveillance supplied by Keeneland. This was offered to HISA, but they never responded to the offer to make that video available. We do not believe Figgy received Tramadol in our care.

It is our belief that Figgy was contaminated with Tramadol either on the van ride to Turfway Park that day or in the receiving barn where she was in her assigned stall for approximately eight hours prior to her race. We have no control over those factors.

HISA has become a dictatorship. They are the judge, jury and executioner. Whether with open eyes or out of ignorance, they have let their enforcement arm throw common sense and fairness out the window.

How is it that the NBA, NFL and MLB all have a players’ union and have representation in the rule and penalty policies of their leagues and horsemen have no representation in HISA policy? And don’t tell me we have real representation through HISA’s horsemen’s advisory group.

We need more than seats on a glorified advisory committee. We need actual seats at the table where the shots are called. It’s our livelihood we are dealing with, and it’s being controlled by people with no idea what we face on a daily basis. HISA/HIWU are holding us to an unattainable standard.

I have no issues with HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus. I think she’s a good person. But she is living in a fantasy land when it comes to keeping horses clear of environmental contamination. There is only so much we can do. Horses are grazing animals. They eat dirt. They love to lick smelly wet spots in stalls. They eat manure. They lick the walls of ship-in stalls. It is unreasonable to think we can control this.

The stalls in these receiving barns are used daily for different stables to race out of. Some are used multiple times a day for training in the morning before housing the race horses that night. It’s very scary that you could be looking at a week or two-year suspension just because of the receiving-barn stall your horse was assigned. 

HIWU undoubtedly knows that many of these positives are due to environmental contamination. The only explanation for acting on them, then, is to justify their existence. 

Only one entity has been vocal about this fatally-flawed system for months, even years: The National HBPA, of which tens of thousands of horsemen are members through affiliates such as Kentucky. It’s time individual horsemen collectively join the chorus. Whether you believe HISA is constitutional or not, we should all be able to agree HIWU’s system of gotcha chemistry is not helping but instead harming racing. 

Horsemen have faced fines and suspensions for the unavoidable. When HISA has to backtrack, the rote response is “we’ve got to do better” or “see, the system is working!” — leaving behind trainers’ trashed reputations and finances.

I was told a long time ago that it’s easier to step on an ant than an elephant. Right now we are ants to HISA. But if we stand together, we become an elephant. We have the numbers. It’s our own fault if we don’t demand our rights and representation on HISA policy-making.

HISA, you are the law of the land. But don’t forget how you got here. You didn’t get in by majority vote. You didn’t come in the front door. You snuck in the basement at midnight. So it’s time for you to work with the majority. 

Ms. Lazarus says we are better with HISA than without them. I say the same to her: Make us a partner, not an enemy. 

It’s not a lot of fun being accused and convicted of something you didn’t do. However, if the HISA system doesn’t get changed, we better get used to it. 

Jennie Rees is a communications and advocacy specialist in the horse industry who spent 32 years covering horse racing for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal before taking a corporate buyout. In addition to handling communications for the Kentucky HBPA, Rees is Kentucky Downs’ publicity director, manages in-season racing publicity for Ellis Park and serves as a consultant to the National HBPA. Other projects include the Preakness Stakes, Indiana Grand’s Indiana Derby Week and work for various HBPA affiliates and horsemen’s associations.