As racetrack origin stories go, Lisa Lazarus’s is pretty good.
When she was growing up in Montreal, Sundays were reserved for bonding with her father. Fortunately, Blue Bonnets Raceway was a short drive from their home. Dad was a fan of the place, and his eldest daughter always looked forward to their visits to what he called the “zoo.”
“It wasn’t until I was like 10 that I found out the track was not the zoo,” Lazarus said. “I’d come home and tell my mom that we watched the animals running.”
It took nearly four decades, but Lazarus is back at the racetrack. Sort of.
As the inaugural chief executive of the newly minted Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, Lazarus is responsible for the health and safety of horse racing’s athletes — human and equine.
Deep in the 2020 coronavirus stimulus package was the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which established a board overseen by the Federal Trade Commission that will write rules and penalties aimed at eliminating doping and abuse within thoroughbred racing. Lazarus’s job is to convince horse people that clear rules, strict enforcement and heavy fines are good for the future of the sport.
It is a hard job that many in horse racing wish was never created.
The constitutionality of the federal law is being challenged in court by horse trainer groups and regulators from various states. Last month, the Texas Racing Commission threatened to shut down racing altogether when the measure takes effect on July 1.
The law has an urgent and necessary role in light of horse racing’s recent doping scandals, the frequent and mysterious deaths of thoroughbreds and waning interest in the sport. Despite the legal challenges, the federal law has been hailed as a watershed by most breeders and owners from Kentucky to New York.
“It gives the horse industry a future,” said the fourth generation breeder and owner Arthur Hancock III. “We were a rogue nation. Now we are not.”
On the job for only five months, Lazarus is careful not to declare that horse racing is on life support. She has a warning, however, for horsemen and horsewomen.
“I will say that I think any sport or entertainment that involves an animal is under incredible scrutiny, as it should be, and that the standards are different today than what they used to be,” Lazarus said. “We have a social license to prove to the community that we take care of our horses and that we are playing fair. And if we don’t do those things, we will certainly be in trouble.”
Lazarus, a lawyer, has run point on difficult matters before. For nearly 10 years, she was at the National Football League, working on collective bargaining issues as well as putting together deals and partnerships internationally.
Lazarus became the general counsel for Fédération Equestre Internationale, the governing body of horse sports, shortly after several equestrian horses failed drug tests at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Her top priority was to come up with a new set of doping rules and punishments, a task that required navigating entrenched officials from 180 countries.
“I had to learn how to dial back the aggressive American in me,” Lazarus said.
Lazarus was with the federation in 2009 when the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, was suspended for six months after two positive doping tests on his endurance racing horses. The sheikh’s then wife, Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, was president of the governing body at the time.
“She’s tough. She’s smart. She is organized and a great communicator,” James L. Gagliano, chief operating officer of the Jockey Club, said of Lazarus. “Clearly, she is what the sport needs.”
The most highly anticipated (or feared, depending on your point of view) aspect of the authority’s work is the investigative and punishment protocols that it will put in place by Jan. 1, 2023. The costs of investigations and enforcement will consume a third of the authority’s $14 million budget for 2022.
Drug testing is expected to be centralized, fast and efficient — no waiting weeks for a second sample.
That was not the case when Medina Spirit failed a post-race drug test after winning last year’s Kentucky Derby. It was not until 11 months later, after a long and winding road through the courts, that the colt’s trainer, Bob Baffert, was issued a 90-day suspension by Kentucky regulators that kept him out of this season’s Triple Crown races.
If the new rules had been in place then, Medina Spirit might have been kept out of the Derby starting gate because Baffert, whose horses had tested positive four times in the previous year, would have been serving at least a 180-day suspension and most likely more, according to the baseline rules.
Lazarus said she was sold on the job because she recognized that the sport had an appetite for change. She cautions that the work will not be easy but has been hitting the road to racetracks in Kentucky and New York, with scheduled visits in the coming weeks to the backsides of tracks in West Virginia, Texas and Louisiana.
“I guess my best pitch to anyone who will listen is, give us a chance to start from the get-go,” Lazarus said. “To show that this is a sincere and real effort that is going to have a major impact on how people view the sport.”