Updated on 09/15/2011 12:27PM

The too-long arm of the law

Email

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In order to save the village, the California Horse Racing Board seems intent upon destroying it. That is precisely what will happen to the Thoroughbred sport in California if the Board persists in its misguided administration of medication rules and penalties. California will become the Afghanistan of the racing world, a culture ruled by fanatics who maintain order by a cruel, outdated code.

The ruling against Bob Baffert in the case of his morphine "positive" is only the most recent example of the racing board run amok. It has happened before, most notably with the outbreak of scopolamine positives in the spring of 1994, when a simple case of environmental contamination led to a prolonged campaign of harrassment against six innocent Thoroughbred trainers lasting nearly two years.

The racing board announced that Bob Baffert has been suspended for 60 days because one of his horses has tested positive for morphine. This is what it means: As the trainer of record for the filly Nautical Look, who won a race at Hollywood Park on May 3, 2000, Baffert has been held responsible for the fact that a trace amount of a substance that metabolized as morphine was found in the filly's postrace urine sample. As the "absolute insurer" of the filly's condition, Baffert must take the blame for the test results, even though those results are inconclusive.

Baffert was given the chance to present mitigating circumstances to avoid or reduce the penalty. He could not, or at least not to the satisfaction of a board of three stewards - none of whom, by the way, have legal training.

But when the public gets wind of the Baffert suspension in USA Today, or the L.A. Times, or on ESPN, this is what they think: The nation's most famous horse trainer, in collusion with crooked vets or mobbed-up gangsters, plotted to dope some poor filly with a high-powered painkiller in order to win a horse race, and he got caught. Maybe he did the same thing to Point Given and the whole thing is being swept under the rug.

No matter how sophisticated it becomes, the public will always harbor a vague perception of horse racing as having a seamy side, just as they accept boxing as a cruel, corrupt endeavor and professional football as being terminally awash in steroids.

There is a certain gritty romance to the rough side of any game. But for regular, healthy consumption, a sport is only as clean as its latest scandal. That is why racing regulators must be very careful when they sling around "drug suspensions," especially when they are actually handing out punishment for offenses of a less sensational nature. In essence, Baffert is being penalized for a possible breach in his stable security that had no apparent impact on the outcome of a horse race. Pretty boring stuff, really. Fine him $20,000 and tell him to tighten things up.

Instead, the California racing board has opted for a public flogging of a headline name. They have chosen to ignore a prepondrance of evolving scientific evidence. Toxicologists characterize the amount of drug found in Nautical Look's test as insignificant and unable to affect the performance of a thousand-pound Thoroughbred. Testimony was presented describing the detected amount of morphine as being consistent with expected "background" contamination in such testing procedures.

In other words, the California Horse Racing Board is enforcing a zero tolerance policy toward morphine, even while they accept test procedures that have a bulit-in margin of error in the interpretation of the drug's presence. That's like sending someone to jail for just looking guilty.

The California Horse Racing Board and its enforcement wing - headed by chairman Robert Tourtelot and executive director Roy Wood - place a high value on the integrity of the racing game. They maintain that the public will participate in racing as a gambling venture only if racing displays a strong commitment to self-policing, and that no individual should be granted special treatment in spite of name, rank, or social status. That all sounds fine . . . in theory. But what happens when the police fail? Who do we turn to when lives are traumatized and reputations ruined for no constructive purpose? At what price are we willing to purchase that precious integrity?

The job of any state racing commission is to regulate the sport by enforcing its rules and regulations upon its license holders. Most of the time this happens quietly and effectively, beneath the radar of public awareness. Most of the time the rules make sense and the enforcement is fair. Then there is California, where racing commisioners seem intent upon establishing a climate of fear. This isn't about catching bad guys, or being soft on crime. It's about punishment without justice. Wielding power without wisdom.

Baffert is not the first to be subjected to such a flawed system, nor will he be the last. There are more morphine "positives" in the pipeline, measured at even smaller trace levels than the Baffert test. Every trainer and every owner should be alarmed, because the deck is stacked against them, and this racing board plays for keeps. At this rate, they could end up regulating an empty ballpark.