02/23/2007 1:00AM

Toothless suspensions achieve little

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NEW YORK - More than 20 years ago, I had the dubious pleasure of living for an entire winter at a Holiday Inn in Miramar, Fla. The place was borderline shabby, but its chief attraction was that the rooms practically bumped up against the stretch turn at Calder Race Course, and you could walk out on to your tiny balcony in the morning to watch workouts.

I eventually made friends with another guest two balconies over, who was not only watching the works intently every morning but also spending a lot of time on a walkie-talkie. It turned out he was a prominent trainer in Florida and New England, sitting out a lengthy suspension for a drug positive but training his horses pretty much as usual, other than doing it on a hotel balcony while eating room-service bacon and eggs in his bathrobe.

Those mornings came to mind with the recent announcement that Rick Dutrow had been suspended 14 days and fined $25,000 for talking to his owners and stable help via cell phone while serving a 60-day suspension in 2005. The finding that Dutrow talked to his employers and employees during those two months was about as shocking as Captain Renault's discovery that there was gambling going on in the casino in "Casablanca." Dutrow shrugged, did not dispute his newest sentence, and said the timing wasn't too bad since he was planning to go to Rio for Carnival this month anyway.

"I guess they're doing what they have to do," he said.

You could practically hear Dutrow's eyes rolling back into his head, along with the rest of the racing world. This entire business of suspending trainers and turning over their horses to their assistants, then pretending they will have no involvement with their racing operations while serving their terms, is supposed to be some way of getting tough on the illegal medication issue. In practice, it is a sham that accomplishes very little.

At the time of Dutrow's 60-day suspension, which began on June 1, 2005, his stable included Saint Liam, who would be named the Horse of the Year at season's end. Are we really to believe that for those 60 days, Dutrow was supposed to stay locked in a closet, unaware of how the best horse he had ever trained was faring? Should he also have somehow been prevented from being told how the horse was being trained or from watching him on television?

More recently, Todd Pletcher served a 45-day suspension for a 2004 medication violation and his stable did not miss a beat as his horses ran under the names of three different assistants in New York, Florida, and California. Pletcher violently disagreed with the suspension and understandably so, given that the positive was for a microscopic finding that no one believes could have affected the performance of the horse in question. When he exhausted his appeals, however, he accepted his sentence, officially disappeared, and racing fans simply got used to the code that a horse officially trained by Seth Benzel, Michael McCarthy, or Anthony Sciametta was simply a Pletcher horse being trained the same way as always.

Pletcher took his days and bit his tongue, and being the meticulous stickler for detail that he is, surely complied with the letter of his suspension. It is preposterous, however, to think he spent 45 days in cold storage unaware of the condition or performance of his hundreds of trainees. The whole procedure is a charade and a nuisance.

This is not to say there is an obvious better way to proceed. The throw-the-book, zero-tolerance crowd has proposed tougher penalties, such as barring a suspended trainer's horses from competition or forcing them to be turned over to independent trainers and moved to different stables. These actions, however, would only punish owners and horses who had absolutely nothing to do with the infraction that prompted the suspension.

Some argue that these harsh measures would discourage owners from giving their horses to trainers who have had positives, but there is no evidence that these suspensions are having any such effect. None of the high-profile trainers suspended for drug positives in recent years have lost clients as a result, a further disconnect between regulators who say they are finding punishable misdeeds and owners who are not moving a single horse as a result.

Suspending trainers may simply have become pointless in the modern racetrack environment. A fine roughly equal to Pletcher's likely earnings during that period would have accomplished exactly the same thing as the hollow sentence of barring him from the grounds and pretending to bar him from contact with his business. Rules have to be enforced, but there has to be a more productive way to do it than through empty bookkeeping gestures.