08/13/2012 11:23AM

Jay Bergman: High purses with little regulation brings problems


Rules are made to be broken.

Anyone who has paid a speck of attention to the economic collapse of the nation has borne witness to how businesses run roughshod on regulation. How many institutions thought to be the backbone of decent ethical society have strayed in the name of profits?

So too is the sport/business of harness racing susceptible to a pseudo-criminal element capable of hiding in the recesses of the industry while others do their bidding.

The proliferation of wunderkind trainers capable of rising from humble roots and suddenly winning at percentages not seen in modern times, offers a glimpse of what passes as the dark side of the business today.

While we won’t go so far as to say money is the root of all evil, the means some people will go to make money is no different in racing than it is on Wall Street.

On Wall Street the public outcry has been for stricter regulation. Businesses squawk at anything that may compromise their ability to make money. On the racing side the “Fear Factor” is even less now than it has ever been in the history of the sport.

The combination of slot-infused purses and deep cuts in state spending have essentially paved the way for the possibility and expectation of rampant drug abuse.

Lawyers may line up in racing organizations and suggest that “testing” hasn’t uncovered widespread cheating. Yet the same defenders of the status quo would have an impossible time explaining why these allegedly “clean” horses never get claimed.

Reality is what goes on in everyday life, and there is no clearer window than harness racing’s claiming business. It’s simple. Buy a horse from a race, enter it the following week and, begin making money. A one-week transaction can make the buyer more money in a week than some people make in a year.

All owners and trainers who play this game recognize the inherent risk involved in taking other people’s property. Claims are at a record high because there is money to be made. Yet despite the presence of aggressive trainers and owners, when it comes to claiming horses from certain trainers, there appears to be an implied “hands-off” policy in vogue.

Defenders of the status quo can suggest from a legal perspective that all are innocent until proven guilty. Our system allows an accused to be tried by a jury of his peers. In harness racing, the peers speak volumes each time they fail to claim a 1-5 favorite in a particular class from one or two specific stables.

Turning a blind eye

What has become of this sport is essentially deregulation. While those who speak of politics suggest there is too much government, the same can’t be said about its involvement in this industry. Since the marriage of racetracks and slot machines, states have become less concerned with what goes on the racetrack than they are with the dollars coming from the machines adjacent to it.

This is a capitalistic society, and clearly states know what generates the revenue and what doesn’t. With that in mind, they have drifted further and further away from involving themselves in the policing of the sport. The fact that owners have to ante up to help support the limited drug-testing program in New York is a vivid example of a dwindling desire to catch anyone.

The unfortunate reality to those who long for a pure as driven snow sport is that there has probably never been a better time to drug horses and profit from it than there is today.

The climate for investigating “horse abuse” is perhaps the only thing the government has been able to look into. That cause appears spearheaded by animal lovers as opposed to those in true search of fraudulent capitalistic behavior.

The federal government has an inordinate supply of resources and generally when it finds something it wants to put an end to, it can in short order. The Feds have no appetite for uncovering racing scandal, because it’s something that won’t make the headlines it did in the 1960s. The plain truth is the best prosecutors are interested in making themselves a name. They pursue cases that provide the best bang for the buck. Sadly, racing has lost its importance on a national stage, and with its demise the interest of law enforcement has gone with it.

In the past, it seemed obvious that horsemen’s organizations would be interested in cleaning up the game. After all, if a majority of horsemen were of the highest ethical level, wouldn’t it make sense for them to root out those who weren’t? The problem the good horsemen obviously find themselves in today is that any uttering of problems within the lines of the game will only help justify the government’s growing belief that racing is not worth funding or saving.

So what we have is the perfect storm for those interested in cheating and profiting from it. It’s a short-term window of opportunity that those with the means and larceny in their blood can take advantage of.

What’s damaging to the psyche is that I can’t find much fault with those who see an opportunity, know that it’s not going to last forever, and make as much money as they can. It is in fact the American Way.

What is the value of a trainer’s license in horse racing?

There are so many beards and behind-the-scenes puppeteers that easily conduct business without any fear of being caught. No piece of paper matters when it’s so easy to plug in and play with a new trainer.

What’s the worst that could happen from this kind of activity?

Even if the trainer gets caught, those running the show from the background won’t be impacted financially in the least. The smartest people are the ones who keep their names hidden by layers of front men.

So when a “bad” trade is made by J.P. Morgan Chase at the cost of $2 billion and rising, one person takes the fall and business goes on with a few beg your pardons.

In racing the pursuit of profit is similar, only the transactions are significantly smaller.