01/17/2018 10:35AM

Bergman: Obvious loophole in the WEG-Gural Integrity initiative


Meadowlands Chairman Jeff Gural promised after last year’s Fall Final Four that matters relating to ownership and exchanging trainers to gain entry into major stakes would be different in 2018.

This past week Gural along with Woodbine Entertainment proudly revealed the Standardbred Racing Integrity and Accountability Initiative (SRIAI) in a joint announcement that seriously penalizes horses, trainers and owners of horses that test positive in 2018 for Class I, II, TCO2 or steroids during the calendar year that begins January 1, 2018.

The core of the penalty will prohibit said horse from racing in any stakes events at Woodbine, Mohawk, The Meadowlands, Vernon Downs or Tioga Downs while at the same time also prohibiting said horse’s transfer.

The rule will not only ban horses that test positive, but it is specifically designed to shake up owners. The owners we’re talking about are those who engage in partnerships. According to the rules, if an owner has a horse that tests positive for the substances mentioned, all other horses that he or she owns at least 25 percent of will also be prohibited from stakes competition at these tracks.

[Editor's Note: Since this article was written it has been announced that some changes will be made in the rules.]

The core belief from those who wrote these rules appears to point directly at owners and partnerships. The effort would appear to force partners to question which trainers are employed by each member and what added risk they have to their own horses.

That appears to be Jeff Gural’s belief as he looks to force the equation that produced some rather embarrassing moments in 2017, with horses in the employ of suspect trainers simply moving their horses and entering prestigious races at The Meadowlands.

“I think by the end of the year all the drug guys will be either out of business or not using drugs because I think our rule will scare owners into not using drug guys,” Gural said.

Gural’s optimistic approach to this is not by accident. He has campaigned heavily over his time as Meadowlands owner to rid the sport of those who allegedly break the rules. He has a list of trainers that are banned from any of his tracks.

Yet let’s look a little closer at his expectations and the actual rule that he believes will shake up owners in the industry.

Essentially the magic number here is 25. That’s right, 25 percent is the threshold put for in the SRIAI regulation and it forces those who own that percentage or higher to put their partners at heightened risk.

We can allege all we want about who the next trainer will be on the list that will be caught with a positive test. As expected in the initial announcement, Mohawk president Jessica Buckley was quite careful not to condemn all those who participate in the sport. She suggested a “super low percentage of positives,” in her remarks.

That said, SRIAI is designed to keep both WEG and the three Gural tracks from experiencing the same issues that felled them in 2017. The substitution of beard trainers used to circumvent the rules. With this action there is a hope that all owners and trainers are forewarned what will and won’t stand this year.

That’s where the 25 percent number becomes so incredibly interesting.

Perhaps bettors and those fans of the industry are unaware, but there are no regulations in place that force owners in partnership to actually declare the percentage of ownership on a given horse. The USTA does not define percentage in ownership it lists for horses, only the names of owners of record.

The only people with accurate knowledge of the way partnered horses are divided are the owners of record. The trainers and their bookkeepers are obviously aware of the breakdown of owners for each and every horse because they need to send bills and checks to those individuals.

So with that said, why would any trainer want to take any risk that an owner could sideline a top horse from a stakes race because the actions of another trainer impact him?

The short answer is that no trainer with “good intentions” would want to be taken down by this rule.

Therefore the best antidote for any trainer concerned with partnerships that include owners who employ multiple trainers is to make certain that none of these people have 25 percent ownership in any horses they train.

Although the “A” in the acronym stands for Accountability, it may actually turn out to mean Accounting as trainers will do the math and partnerships will change so that questionable owners can either move to 24 percent and no more, or perhaps add family members with none reaching the 25 percent threshold.

In reality I believe those who put SRIAI together wanted to go after owners but certainly didn’t want to unnecessarily punish those with minor ownership share of horses. That’s commendable considering the action was intended to benefit horse owners and encourage more of them to participate. It was also meant to some degree to offer greater integrity to those who wager on the sport, though I struggle to understand if this action will encourage more wagering.

Jeff Gural stated that stakes nominations or payments from horsemen on his banned list won’t be accepted this year at his three tracks. That’s actually the precursor for how last year’s trouble started and why trainers had to be changed in the first place.

The actions taken by WEG and Gural are meaningful and will likely need to be tweaked in some manner going forward. Perhaps of more importance is whether the alleged “bad guys” will lose any of their current support. There are a large group of owners that want to race horses and make money. There’s a list of trainers that have succeeded and have done so without achieving the positive tests that some expect to see. The obvious conclusion by those on the offensive is that they are using illegal substances that are unknown and not being tested for. Should that continue in 2018, what will the next step be?