Flatter: Can red-wine diplomacy solve regulatory fight?

Flatter: Can red-wine diplomacy solve regulatory fight?
Photo: National HBPA / NTRA - edited

On seemingly rare occasions I interrupt my coarsened cynicism with a little cockeyed optimism. Such has been the case this week in our fair game, the one too many critics have declared to be unfair.

The new turf war for racing is regulation. The battlefields look like courtrooms, but in truth they are social-media platforms, even websites like this one designed to disseminate the news of our sport.

The sport of kings has become as much an arena for regulators and blue bloods as it has for generational horsemen and aristocratic blue bloods. Railbirds and $2 grinders have been joined by critics and demagogues ranging from the realistic to the idealistic.

Lately the rancor over the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority has become a Capitol Hill doppelgänger, replete with intractable positions, hardened opinions and even trenchant debate. Throw in the requisite personal attacks and demagoguery, and it looks like something belonging in the 21st-century maw of Fox News or MSNBC.

My optimism, however, comes from listening to two men who know Washington and have become the most prominent voices on either side of the HISA debate. Tom Rooney, for, and Eric Hamelback, against.

Flatter Pod: Hamelback talks about HISA.

I have gotten to know both of them a bit in the past couple years, and it says here they have much more in common than one might think. Both are Republicans. Both are accomplished professionals. Both are affable, family men. Both have a love of horse racing. And yes, both want some sort of common blueprint for interstate regulation of the sport.

And here is the part where I find myself optimistic. Rooney, the former member of Congress who is the CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, and Hamelback, who is the CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, are quite friendly with one another.

Yes, they communicate, and not through emissaries but directly with one another. Their conversations are private. And not infrequent. And not hostile.

Never mind politics. In this case it is horse racing that makes strange bedfellows. HISA may be a four-letter word to the NHBPA. The NHBPA may be nasty-tasting alphabet soup to HISA. But as long as Rooney and Hamelback are talking to one another, there might just be some middle ground out there somewhere.

Theirs is a relationship reminiscent of Reagan and O’Neill. Bush and Clinton, as in George H.W. and Bill. Even Biden and Dole, way back in the last century. Their collective collegiality was not a fantasy. It was real, a vestige of that anachronistic relic known as compromise.

While Hamelback’s organization has been in federal court this week in Texas to fight the new anti-doping rules that were approved Monday by the Federal Trade Commission, HISA enemies and allies have been posted like sentries in their respective citadels firing away with their broadsides.

The common message from Barbara Banke and Drew Fleming on behalf of the Breeders’ Cup and Anthony Manganaro from Siena Farm was clear. The old way of doing business stinks, and the NHBPA should quit protecting it.

“The truth is,” Banke and Fleming wrote, “the HBPA has offered no solution that adequately addresses the full scope of the industry’s issues, nor does it have any desire to represent its members who support meaningful reform.”

“Why is this group, which falsely presents itself as somehow representing all horsemen, outrageously asserting that track safety and doping don’t need a national solution?” Manganaro asked in his op-ed for Paulick Report.

From the other side came a blast from Kentucky HBPA president Rick Hiles, who wrote for Paulick Report, “This all could have been avoided had the largest Thoroughbred horsemen’s association and the Association of Racing Commissioners International been invited to the table to create a true path forward to improving horse racing. Instead, the powerful and well-financed minority backing HISA opted for class warfare.”

One wonders if Wes Hendrix is paying attention to all this as he puts on his robe in some sterile government building deep in the heart of jurisprudence. His honor sits in judgment of the constitutionality of HISA and whether proper respect is being paid to the role of the FTC and whether states’ rights have been, to use a good lawyer word, subsumed.

Frankly, the eternal court fights are peripheral. The whole FTC-HISA wrestling match is like learning how to properly make an appeal throw to third base to find out if the runner left too soon on the sacrifice fly. Call time, step off, ask the ump and throw? Or is it step off and then call time?

Eventually, this code will be cracked one way or another. Whatever Hendrix decides, presumably in a Friday news dump, it will lead to more motions, more lawsuits, more lawyering and, of course, more billable hours for Esq., et al. The U.S. Supreme Court may or may not one day take these cases, but ultimately the more important unknown is the date the judges and their antecedent attorneys decide on a walk-off winner.

Either the current structure for HISA will endure, or it will be torn down and rebuilt in some way. Both sides agree the momentum for federal regulation of racing is not going away, because the absence of a uniform, interstate structure was like the trash in a frat house at the end of the spring semester. It just sat there with no one on the inside doing anything about it. Congress became the equivalent of the landlord’s summer cleaning service.

That is where Rooney and Hamelback come in. No, not Lisa Lazarus. As the head of HISA, she is a paid servant of the U.S. government. Her paychecks are authorized by an organization that is one degree of separation from the FTC. For her, advocacy is the obligatory side hustle to the day job of being the field general.

Rooney and Hamelback represent their own fiefdoms that make them the most visible faces of constituents who want HISA to succeed or fail. Ultimately, though, each has to anger some of his respective hard cores.

I wish I knew what the middle ground was here that would appease both sides. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer. There may not even be two sizes to fit all.

Both Rooney and Hamelback have kidded me about my frequent Tweets showing my nightly glass of wine on the balcony of the apartment where my wife and I live in Kentucky.

Rooney told me he wants an invitation, but my wife has trip-wired our living room with such a huge amount of bric-à-brac that she limits me to one trip out and one back inside each night. Thus the one full glass of wine. No refills.

Hamelback has heard my idea that he and Rooney ought to sit down on our terrace over glasses of my beloved Australia shiraz, and then I would excuse myself to let them have a yarn. My idea was framed in small talk, but he did not reject the notion out of hand. Dear diary.

Cockeyed optimism, indeed. At the end of the day, though, does anyone have a better idea on how to bring this sport together?

I will hang up and listen.

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