Horse racing-Anti-doping program for racehorses seeks to win back public trust

LOS ANGELES, March 17 (Reuters) - U.S. horse racing officials said on Friday they hope implementing the first nationwide program to combat illegal doping will help restore the public's faith in the sport.

The new rules, effective March 27, will replace the patchwork of state-by-state regulations after high-profile drug scandals and horse deaths led the federal government to intervene.

If successful, a "game-changing" electronic tracking system will reduce fatalities while finding and punishing bad actors, Lisa Lazarus, CEO of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA), told Reuters.

"That will allow us to gain the trust of the public and allow the sport to really thrive," Lazarus said in an interview.

"It used to be a top three sport in America for years and years, at least in my grandparent's generation, and it's fallen behind.

"Part of that is because we've lost a step on safety and integrity. If we can bring that back, we have a chance to present the sport as the best version of itself."

To lead enforcement HISA has hired former FBI agent Shaun Richards, who led a criminal investigation into the doping of racehorses that resulted in indictments of more than 30 individuals, including trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis.

There has been some pushback against the seismic shift in regulation, with some worried that smaller racetracks may shut down if they cannot afford the cost of complying with HISA's previously implemented safety program.

Arizona's Turf Paradise this week agreed to pay over $150,000 in fees to ensure its track meets HISA's standards concerning the condition of track rails, availability of equine ambulances and riding crop violations, the Arizona Mirror reported.

"We will work with any small track that in good faith wants to get to the standards that are required," Lazarus said.

"We have an obligation to make sure that every track reaches our standards, but if they are unwilling, then we have an obligation to horses and riders to make sure they are not competing in an unsafe environment."

Lazarus said she hopes the industry will come to see HISA, which operates under the umbrella of the Federal Trade Commission, as beneficial.

"The only thing that's stopping us from having the support of the entire community is a trust factor," she said.

"So success to me is one, earning the trust of the horsemen and the recognition that this is the right program for our industry.

"And two, to the extent that there are people abusing the use of substances in horses and cheating, that we find them and we kick them out of the sport."

Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio

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