09/18/2006 11:00PM

A tough code, and they're sticking to it


TUCSON, Ariz. - The success of Horse Greeley in the Del Mar Futurity brought to mind the advice of his namesake Horace, who told youth of a different century to "Head west, young man," or words to that effect.

My advice is different: Head north.

Much of what is happening today of significance - particularly in enforcing tough integrity rules - is happening north of the border, in Canada.

Not only are racing infractions bringing harsh penalties, but social transgressions are bringing stiff suspensions as well, as today's news indicates.

Things are different in Canadian racing, obviously, than they are south of the Peace Bridge.

Racing in the U.S. is highly politicized. Legislators are not inclined to write severe or even specific legislation on what can be done to wrongdoers. Racing commissioners are political appointees and are frequently reminded of that fact with calls when some legislator's son or friend or constituent gets into trouble. The commissioners also are limited, and judges and stewards even more, by limitations on how much money they can assess in fines and how much time they can assess in suspensions.

Racetracks are keenly aware of the cost of litigation, and need no reminder that trainers would no more think of going trackside without a good lawyer than jockeys would think of going without a good helmet. So tracks, mostly private enterprises in this country, often are reluctant to use their inherent power of private property to oust offenders.

There have been some encouraging signs.

Indiana, under its super-tough executive director, Joe Gorajec, and a supportive commission that backs him, recently tossed out four horsemen, one for 10 years and the others for two years, for drug offenses.

Brand new Tioga Downs, a shining model of what a small track can be and do, used an off-duty steward to set up a functioning search team and caught two trainers actually milkshaking horses, one of them at a roadside stop on a major highway near the track that they had under surveillance.

But the real beacon of light is Woodbine Entertainment Group, where wrongdoers are barred under the track's own powers to exclude; where dead horses must be autopsied; where a harness trainer's entire stable was declared persona non grata, including a top contender in a $900,000 stakes, and the draw for the race was delayed 24 hours because another horse in the trainer's stable turned up positive; and where - most recently - the arm of justice reached out to touch owners.

This, of course, is the most far-reaching move of all, and Woodbine did not hesitate to use it. After a million-dollar pacer in their stable tested positive, two harness owners had their racing privileges at Woodbine tracks suspended, including another horse that had won almost $600,000.

This kind of positive action is the result of the determination of David Willmot, who runs Woodbine's vast holdings, that draconian measures must be taken to save the sport. Willmot owns top trotters and pacers today, and his family's Kinghaven Farm has bred some of Canada's best Thoroughbreds.

It is significant that Willmot pulled the trigger on offenders, including the owners who hire trainers who get into illegal medication trouble. It is even more significant that he opens the purse strings to provide Woodbine with the very latest in racing technology.

He authorized an expenditure of close to $10 million to install Polytrack, Canada's first synthetic racetrack surface.

A year ago Woodbine launched the first legal wireless wagering system in Canada.

And now he has installed the Trakus Wireless System, which shows the position of each runner and every move in a race by displaying saddlepad colors as small chips with the picture as the race unfolds.

These electronic race positioning systems - there are several in use at U.S. tracks - serve a highly useful purpose.

Anyone watching races live, whether at the track or on television or simulcasting screens, is fully aware of the inadequacy of human operation of such systems. TV emphasizes the shortcomings, often trailing actual moves in a race by an eighth of a mile or more, and it is frustrating to see the wrong number posted for 10 or 20 seconds because a human operator can't keep up with the action.

Trakus and its U.S. counterparts correct that, another step forward in the sometimes slow march of racing progress.

Technological improvement in racing is fine. Courage in ridding the sport of its bottom-feeding edge-seekers is even finer. Those who possess and use it should be applauded by all who support the game, whether by buying and feeding and training and loving these animals, or by stepping up to the windows and betting hard-earned money on what you have the right to expect will be an exciting contest over that much discussed and often abused level playing field.