Updated on 09/17/2011 9:57AM

Time to confront real bugaboo: Drugs


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - When the Breeders' Cup Pick Six scandal erupted last fall, the racing industry knew it had a problem to fix. Not only did it have to repair weaknesses in the nation's betting systems, but it had to address the public's perception that the game wasn't on the level.

So it hired Rudolph Giuliani's consulting firm in the hope that some of ex-mayor's luster would rub off on horse racing. Several tracks cut off wagering before post time so that customers would not fear that cheaters were betting after a race had begun. Even though racing executives knew this was probably impossible, they knew they had to shore up public confidence. If horse racing is prepared to take significant and costly actions to protect its image in an area in which wrongdoing is relatively minor, shouldn't it try to cure the problem that is corroding the sport?

The betting public believes that the use of illegal drugs is out of control at U.S. tracks. From Aqueduct to Santa Anita, once-obscure trainers regularly perform "miracles" and compile extraordinary win percentages. Bettors fret the game has been ruined because the performance of horses defies conventional logic, and they routinely make decisions based on the belief that certain trainers have the "juice." Honest trainers despair, too, believing that they are competing on an uneven playing field.

At Gulfstream Park this winter, much attention and speculation has been directed toward owner Mike Gill and trainer Mark Shuman, who have been winning at a phenomenal rate. The Gill saga took an intriguing twist recently when track security officers searched the vehicles of Gill's two principal veterinarians, taking samples of the drugs in their possessions. One of the vets, Leonard Patrick, was subsequently banned from the track for a minor violation involving the storage of his medications. After the searches, there were no more miraculous improvements by Gill horses, and the once unstoppable stable lost 19 straight races. One might conclude that Gill was doing something illicit before the searches and stopped doing it afterward, but there is no proof of misconduct and probably never will be. And here is the crux of horse racing's dilemma.

Although overwhelming circumstantial evidence may suggest the use of prohibited drugs, racing chemists rarely find evidence of it. Dishonest trainers use drugs that can't be detected in laboratory tests; when a test is found, the cheaters move on to something else.

Thus the racing industry faces this most difficult question: If it has no proof of wrongdoing, but the public perceives that dishonesty is rampant, how does the sport defend its image and its integrity?

Track president Scott Savin was aware of all the suspicions surrounding Gill, though he noted, "Everybody is always quick to jump on a conspiracy-theory bandwagon." When suspicions do arise, Savin said, "You can double the scrutiny. Tracks can step up surveillance and they can search people - though you should only do this with a lot of forethought. You don't want to abuse that power."

The search of the Gulfstream vets showed that Gulfstream was aware of the integrity issue and trying to do something about it. But the sport has more powerful weapons that it could use to combat cheaters - and it should use them.

* Make penalties for violations meaningful. On the occasions when a trainer is caught for a drug infraction, the penalties are usually farcical. The horses run in the name of the trainer's assistant. This is what happened when Gill's two Maryland trainers were caught for medication violations last year; the stable's activities went on without missing a beat. If punishments are going to be meaningful, all of an owner's horses should be banned from racing for the duration of a suspension.

* Use stall assignments to weed out undesirables. When racetracks grant stall space to trainers, they have largely arbitrary power to decide who will be competing. Traditionally, tracks make their decisions based on the size and quality of a trainer's stable, but they ought to take into account a trainer's reputation and any past history of violations.

* Use the power of exclusion. Privately owned racetracks may bar people as long as they don't discriminate on grounds of race, religion, gender, etc. When Dover Downs harness track excluded a trainer with drug violations on his record, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals last year upheld the track's right to do so.

Most racetracks are reluctant to use this ultimate weapon, and the reason is money. "Tracks can fight long court battles and wind up with enormous legal costs," said Bennett Liebman, coordinator of the Racing and Wagering Law Project at Albany Law School. He noted that Suffolk Downs was bogged down in 10 years of litigation after barring one undesirable character. Liebman suggested that the racing industry establish an insurance fund or a defense fund to help tracks who want to use this power to protect their own integrity.

Stan Bergstein, executive vice president of the Harness Tracks of America and a crusader against illegal drugs (and a contributor to Daily Racing Form), thinks racetracks are left with few other choices. "If the chemists can't keep up with [the cheaters]," he said, "exclusion is the only weapon you have left."

But from the standpoint of many racetrack executives, this is not a black and white issue. I asked Savin if he had any second thoughts about giving 80 stalls this winter to Gill, who had been barred from the sport for three years for drug violations in New England. Savin had none. "He's helping us to fill our races, to give us the nine- and 10-horse fields we all want."

Racetracks depend on owners and trainers - even ones with questionable reputations - to put on the show. And they have always been reluctant to address the drug problem for fear of stirring up a scandal that would produce bad publicity. But most racing fans would concur that there can be no more equivocation on this issue. The betting public has lost confidence in the integrity of the sport, and the industry should use every possible means to restore it.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post