09/13/2017 5:24PM

Zoccali: A great first step in Pennsylvania towards integrity

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Last year I wrote a column highlighting what I thought were potential points for optimism in the harness racing industry in 2017.  Among those points was the appointment of Brett Revington as bureau director of standardbred racing for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.  Fast forward eight months and Revington is making a positive impact.

It was reported by Harness Racing Update lthat effective October 1, horses with a Class 1, 2 or 3 positive test from racing in Pennsylvania will be suspended.

Specifically, horses with a Class 1 or 2 positive will be “ineligible to race for a period of 90 days from the date of confirmation of the positive split sample.”  If a horse has a Class 3 positive or a high TCO2 reading, that horse will be ineligible to race in the state “for a period of 30 days from the date of confirmation of the positive split sample.”

Furthermore, Pennsylvania can also ban a horse from racing that has a positive for any of the above in another jurisdiction.

The significance in this development is that this rule removes a great deal of skepticism and argument from the process.  The rule is written in black and white.  If a horse has a positive test, an owner cannot protest the barring of his or her horse from a race because of a technicality.  A horse with a positive test can no longer be “transferred to a new barn” for his or her upcoming races.

Most importantly, it establishes a precedent now within the United States that other jurisdictions can explore.  It gives those striving for an integrity-driven product, notably Jeff Gural, something to point to and say, “This is what we should be doing in this state.”  Gural has long had to stand on his own and has been accused of creating rules at his own discretion.  My counter to that is, when nobody else is willing to do the right thing to protect the integrity of the sport and the horse, the person that stands up and tries to do that shouldn’t be torn down but rather applauded.  Now, Gural has a specific rule in a neighboring state that he can present to the New Jersey Racing Commission for consideration.

While this development is a great first step for horse racing integrity within the United States, there is a lot more that can be done.  We still face the issue of trainers who face suspension moving other horses who did not test positive to a different trainer (the issue of beard trainers). 

The next step is the culpability of the horse owner.  A horse owner should be held accountable for the safety and well-being of the horses he or she owns.  A system that penalizes a trainer for a positive test but rewards an owner by being able to just move the rest of his horses to another stable without consequence and continue to accrue purse money, is a flawed system.  If we are to demand responsibility for our trainers, we should demand the same responsibility for our owners.

My suggestion is a system of fines and eventually suspensions for owners of horses that have positive tests.  That system is as follows:

Class 1 or 2 positive test

1)      First offense - $10,000 fine plus forfeiture of all purse money stemming from the positive test.

2)      Second offense - $25,000 fine, forfeiture of all purse money stemming from the positive test, inability to enter any horse for a period of 15 days.

3)      Third offense - $50,000 fine, forfeiture of all purse money stemming from the positive test, inability to enter any horse for a period of 30 days.

4)      Fourth offense - $100,000 fine, forfeiture of all purse money stemming from the positive test, inability to enter any horse for a period of 90 days.

5)      Fifth offense – Barred from ownership.

 

Class 3 positive test

1)      First offense - $1,000 fine plus forfeiture of all purse money stemming from the positive test.

2)      Second offense - $2,500 fine, forfeiture of all purse money stemming from the positive test.

3)      Third offense - $5,000 fine, forfeiture of all purse money stemming from the positive test.

4)      Fourth offense – Moves to the “first offense” for a Class 1 or 2 positive test.

5)      Fifth offense - Moves to the “second offense” for a Class 1 or 2 positive test.

6)      Sixth offense - Moves to the “third offense” for a Class 1 or 2 positive test.

7)      Seventh offense - Moves to the “fourth offense” for a Class 1 or 2 positive test.

8)      Eighth offense - Moves to the “fifth offense” for a Class 1 or 2 positive test.

The bottom line is any owner whose horses have had five major positive tests is not fit to own racehorses.  The levy for a series of infractions should be severe enough that an owner would be fearful of a Class 1 or Class 2 positive test.

For the record, my father owned a good amount of horses from the time I was 13 years old until my mid-20’s. We spent a lot of time at our horses’ stables and saw firsthand our trainers interacting with the horses.  None of our horses ever had a positive test under our ownership.

My goal with this system is a trickle-down effect of integrity.  An owner is so fearful of a major violation that any trainer that he employs is asked to take specific measures to avoid any kind of positive test.  Perhaps the owner asks the trainer to sign documentation to certain points, ensuring integrity.  Perhaps that forces the trainer to do the same to any assistants or veterinarians he employs.  The goal here is to put into a place a structure of responsibility within a broken system.

I am certain that many owners will look at this and say, “Who wants to own horses under those circumstances?”  My response to that is this: if you are the owner of a living, breathing animal, you should be responsible for its well-being.  Would you leave your cat or dog at a kennel after you learned a staff-member was abusing the animals?  Furthermore, would you not hold the owner of the kennel responsible for the abuse? 

Breaking news! Giving horses illegal substances is abuse.  Why is it that in the sport of horse racing, owners feel that a positive test for their horse is everyone’s fault but theirs?  Being an absentee owner is not an excuse.  If you employ somebody to care for an animal, you are responsible for that animal’s welfare and when that animal’s well-being is compromised, not only should you be held accountable for that, but you should be outraged that someone you employ treated an animal you own with anything other than the best of care.  But instead, we see owners immediately running to the defensive, sometimes defending the trainer the first chance they get.  Pennsylvania has provided a great starting point for an integrity sweep of the sport and hopefully somebody takes the baton and makes the second step.