Updated on 09/15/2011 12:28PM

No tolerance for zero tolerance


NEW YORK - There's plenty of difference of opinion on the California Horse Racing Board's order this week to fine and suspend trainer Bob Baffert for a trace-level postrace morphine positive at Hollywood Park 14 months ago. Some have applauded the stewards' courage for strictly enforcing the regulations against a popular and high-profile horseman. Others say the CHRB is on a continuing vindictive witch hunt that has nothing to do with protecting the integrity of the sport. Then there is the view among the most cynical of horseplayers that a guy who wins as many races as Baffert is probably doing something shady, so the facts of this case don't matter because there's probably fire where there's smoke.

Each of these viewpoints overlooks the reason that we're having these discussions at all, and the way to keep them from happening again: California's "zero tolerance" rule on postrace testing. Change the rule and none of this would have happened.

The postrace finding on Nautical Look, winner of the seventh at Hollywood on May 3, 2000, was for 73 nanograms of morphine. The amount has been likened to a hundredth of a poppy seed, and the level for a significant morphine finding in a human being is something like 2000 nanograms. Some veterinarians have said that a finding of 5 million nanograms would represent a dose that would affect the performance of a racehorse.

Consider this in conjunction with the thorough lack of evidence that there was anything improper about the race in question ? no unusual betting patterns or payoffs, no relevant form reversal and not a single allegation that there was any outside attempt to influence or improperly benefit from the outcome of this race. It's pretty clear that this case has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with the mandatory enforcement of bad law.

Drug testing has gotten extremely sophisticated since these regulations were first written. Whereas any positive finding may once have indicated a significant event, tests now register positive for infinitesimal amounts that are as likely the result of environmental contamination as nefarious deeds. There are probably trace amounts of cocaine on every dollar bill in circulation, but not everyone with a single in his pocket should be prosecuted for possession with intent to distribute.

Zero tolerance is one of those get-tough slogans that causes nothing but misery and confusion. Most often applied in school settings, it is responsible for the regulatory absurdities that have gotten a preschooler suspended for kissing a classmate (zero tolerance for sexual harassment) and a high-school senior sent home for having a butter knife in her car (zero tolerance for weapons possession).

Everyone is supposed to be on the same side of this issue. It would seem that a united and well-informed group of industry horseman and veterinarians could sit down with the CHRB and set reasonable levels for postrace findings and agree on a more sensible baseline than zero.

Speaking well of the candid

Everyone has been rushing to Baffert's defense but no one seems eager to defend the other big-name trainer on a different hot seat this week. D. Wayne Lukas has been universally demonized for having made unflattering remarks about the jockey Chris Antley. Trainers have said far worse things about jockeys without causing 73 nanograms worth of commotion. The difference apparently is that Antley is dead, and there seems to be zero tolerance in society at large for speaking ill of the recently departed.

Lukas said he was tired of hearing the hearts-and-flowers myth of a great bond between Antley and Charismatic. The tale has been spun repeatedly of a unique, transcendent relationship between horse and jockey that saved the animal's life and spiritually enriched Antley's. According to Lukas, that's mostly swill as he remembers it, Antley neither came by the horse's stall after his breakdown in the Belmont Stakes nor called Lukas to inquire about the horse's health.

The Antley-Charismatic love story is the kind of "human interest" fable that has come to dominate far too much sports reporting and broadcasting. In an effort to give niche-interest sports a more universal appeal, journalists and producers fall all over themselves to create little soap operas about ever-popular topics like death, disease, religion, sex, and drugs. Coverage of the Olympics these days has less to do with sports than with presenting a parade of stories about athletes with sick grandmothers.

Lukas has achieved an age and stature where he speaks his mind with increasingly less regard for nicety. In doing so, he may perturb the friends and families of the deceased but should not be reviled for telling the other side of a story.