08/10/2009 11:00PM

Signs of life in the dead of summer


TUCSON, Ariz. - Integrity was much in the news in recent days and weeks, some developments forceful, some more modest, some surprising.

Among the surprises were suspensions for use of prohibited substances of the trainers for the Queen of England as well as the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai, the hero of American Thoroughbred horse sales, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. He was making racing headlines here again this week as the star of the opening session of the Fasig-Tipton sale at Saratoga.

The Queen's trainer, Nicky Henderson, was suspended for three months and fined 40,000 pounds - $67,222 in U.S. green - for using transexamic acid on unsuspecting members of the royal stable.

The sheikh's equine medication problems happily did not involve his huge band of well-bred racehorses. They rose over the use of a prohibited tranquilizer on his horse Tahhan in two events last winter. The sheikh enjoys riding in long-distance races. The violation led to a fine of $4,242, tip money for the sheikh, and it was news in part because his wife, the beautiful Princess Haya of Jordan, is the head of the International Equestrian Federation. She recused herself from the penalty discussion, as that body issued the fine to the sheikh as "the person responsible" for the administration of the medication. The fine was insignificant, but a suspension of the sheikh from riding privileges for six months was not. More significant was the one-year suspension of the sheikh's trainer, Abdullah bin Huzin, for the minor offense.

Neither occurrence cast shadows on the monarchs involved, but the very fact that any action was taken in the cases spoke volumes that the administration of racing justice is alive and well in both jurisdictions.

Closer to home, the Breeders' Cup has strengthened its rules on prohibited substances, introducing a one-year ban on the trainer of any horse testing positive from Cup events.

Far more significant was a new three-strikes-and-you're-out rule, a lifetime ban from Cup races that apply to any trainer with three such violations

Finally, there was strong and decisive action from a man who speaks integrity not so much for public relations and perception, but from a profound belief that racing is damaged critically without it.

David Willmot, who runs Woodbine Entertainment, has been doing battle with a harness horsemen's group in Canada - the Ontario Harness Horsemen's Association - that seemingly enjoyed confrontation and controversy.

Frustrated and angered by its constant belligerence, Willmot pulled the cord, and announced that Woodbine would not have any further negotiations or doings with the group.

That led to a new president of the horsemen's association - Hall of Fame harness driver Bill O'Donnell - but when a vote of no confidence was threatened he saved the horsemen the trouble and quit. But not for long.

O'Donnell formed a new group - the Central Ontario Standardbred Association, or COSA - and Willmot, who is familiar with O'Donnell's longstanding and outspoken views on integrity, signed a five-year contract with the new group.

COSA is not a house organization, and will not be with O'Donnell at the helm. As a former perennial leader, with John Campbell, in driver standings at the Meadowlands, harness racing's dominant U.S, track, O'Donnell established himself as a straight-talking realist.

He understands that Woodbine controls racing in Ontario, and he knows that Willmot, as a horseman and breeder of both runners and harness horses at his Kinghaven Farms, prizes the integrity of Woodbine's operation above all else.

The resolve of both men to keep it that way was reflected in their statements made this month with their agreement.

O'Donnell said: "We at COSA believe that this contract provides stability, certainty, and above all else, an opportunity for our members to prosper. WEG has made it clear that it wants a partner that shares its goal of presenting a product of unquestioned quality and integrity. Our members have made it clear that they want COSA to be that partner."

Willmot said: "We are delighted to be partnering with a new association which truly represents the horsepeople that race at our tracks. We look forward to working in partnership with COSA on those issues and opportunities which will help promote the future quality, integrity and prosperity of standardbred racing at Woodbine and Mohawk."

In days of darkness these are bright and shining words. Knowing both individuals as longtime friends, I also know their statements are not rhetoric.