08/20/2007 11:00PM

One racing official with a backbone

Email

TUCSON, Ariz. - They don't give Eclipse Awards for racing officials with guts, but if they ever get around to it, Joe Gorajec, the

veteran executive director of the Indiana Racing Commission, will win by 20 lengths, handily. Events two weeks ago showed why.

A federal judge in Indianapolis, ruling in a case in which a well-known trainer and his wealthy principal owners challenged Gorajec's refusal to license the trainer because of his past record, made it clear that Gorajec acted clearly within his authority.

Then Gorajec sidelined the leading harness driver at both of Indiana's tracks, Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs, for two years for abusive and excessive whipping.

Gorajec has been the Indiana commission's executive director for 17 years, before there was horse racing in the state. He helped write the rules and set up offtrack betting and full-card simulcasting. Before that he was executive director of the Missouri Racing Commission, general manager of a racetrack at 27, a director of racing, and worked in track marketing and mutuels. He knows the territory, and its perils and pitfalls.

He is the Clark Kent of racing officials, mild-mannered and soft-spoken in civilian garb, but with a big red "S" on his chest when he slips into his role as arbiter of justice in Hoosierland. He is the Man of Steel in that role, and has the strong support of a racing commission that respects and trusts him.

Gorajec came to racing never wanting to do anything else. His father took him to Saratoga Race Course when he was 8, and he was infected by the racing bug that day, with no cure. When he was 20, he enrolled in the Race Track Industry Program at the University of Arizona, and graduated in 1981 with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture. He was off and running.

The U.S. court victory and the whipping suspension are typical of Gorajec's courage and determination to keep racing clean and above-board.

In the federal court case, a successful harness trainer named Noel Daley sent four horses owned by the powerful Adam Victor and Son stable to Indiana Downs for racing, including stakes engagements. The Victors spent considerable money staking and shipping the horses.

Daley did not show up personally until the day of the first stakes race, and when he applied for a license, the racing commission, on orders from Gorajec, refused to grant it.

Daley, licensed in New Jersey, Kentucky, Illinois, and Ohio, had been suspended for 270 days in New Jersey, fined $20,000, and assessed another $20,000 in costs after drugs and drug paraphernalia were found in his stable. Daley admitted having possession of numerous controlled, dangerous substances. He served the suspension, his assistant trainer taking over the stable during the entire span.

Gorajec said Daley was not welcome in Indiana, his past record making his presence not in the public interest or in the best interest of racing. Daley and the Victors sued, claiming bad faith and constitutional due process protection. The matter wound up in the United States District Court in Indianapolis. Federal judge John Daniel Tinder, in a 29-page decision, called the constitutional argument "an odd claim," saying the commission did not deprive the Victors of property or liberty, a basis of due process arguments. He found the commission had the discretion to deny the application in the public interest and for the purpose of maintaining proper control over horse racing.

As for whipping, it is the silent, unspoken scourge of American racing. Rules governing excessive whipping exist in almost every racing jurisdiction, but judges and stewards are reluctant to use them because they involve subjective judgment, and the possibility of litigation. No one knows how many patrons abandon racing, or never embrace it, because of their distaste for seeing horses whipped, but it is clear millions do not like to see animals abused. Ask Michael Vick.

Josh Sutton, leading driver at both Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs last year, had numerous whipping violations in 2005 and 2006. In the second race at Hoosier Park on May 19 this year, he inflicted what the racing commission called "severe multiple lacerations" to the horse Staley Lane, using a 10-inch "snapper" at the end of his whip, four inches longer than allowed in Indiana.

Joe Gorajec dropped the hammer, suspending Sutton for six months, fining him $2,500, and requiring him to sign an agreement that he will not apply for an Indiana license before June 20, 2009.

Joe Gorajec was named outstanding executive director by his peers in 1999, and now is chairman-elect of the nation's racing commissioners.

North American racing needs to find a way to clone him.