04/20/2017 2:54PM

Zoccali: Shining the spotlight in the wrong direction

Derick Giwner
Trainer Rene Allard.

“The blazing-hot brother team of driver Simon Allard and trainer Rene opened the Saturday night card at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono with three victories and two seconds in the first five races.”  That was the opening sentence in the Saturday (April 8) recap for the racing at the Wilkes-Barre oval.  This story was published 36 hours after it was announced that one of Rene Allard’s horses, One Too Many, received a positive test for Codeine and Morphine, both class one drugs, following a March 18 race at Woodbine Racetrack. 

For those keeping score, Codeine is what you would find in a cough-suppressant like Robitussin and it is an opiate that is used to treat pain.  Morphine, of course, is an opiate used to treat chronic and acute pain.  In humans, it is used post-surgery, during labor and to bring comfort throughout end-of-life symptoms, most notably for cancer patients.  Morphine acts directly on the central nervous system to decrease the feeling of pain.

There can be a long debate, with valid points on both sides, as to whose responsibility it is to regulate the game and what responsibility a racetrack has when a trainer like Rene Allard has this kind of a positive test.  For the record, Allard, the leading trainer at Woodbine, has no horses entered on the opening night card at Mohawk and has not had a horse race at Woodbine since Monday, April 3rd despite never officially being suspended by the tracks.  He does have entries a plenty in the coming week at Pocono, Yonkers and Saratoga. 

Yes, everyone should be innocent until proven guilty, but don’t forget that Allard had a positive test for Oxycodone (are you seeing a trend yet?) last October, ironically for a horse racing at Pocono Downs.  It is also interesting to note that in every other major sport in this country, a positive test is typically the threshold to determine guilt from innocence.

But while we can debate that topic ad-nauseam, surely we can all agree that when a trainer has had a positive test of this severity, we shouldn’t be putting out press releases putting that trainer on a pedestal and speaking about how good he is.

First and foremost, it simply looks bad.  In a time where perception is everything, do we really want Rene Allard to be the face of training greatness in harness racing, given the baggage his name comes with?

Second, it’s unfair to the bettors.  Interestingly, the majority of bettors I have spoken to on the subject of illegal drugs don’t care about the perception.  They don’t care whether or not trainers are cheating.  The problem they have is they don’t know when a trainer is going to cheat.  “If a horse is treated with drug-X one week and he jogs off the screen, how do I know he will get the same treatment the following week?  The past performances don’t matter, it’s a guessing game as to when the drug-trainers are going to give the drugs to the horses,” one player said to me.  He added, “That’s why I play The Meadowlands, while I can’t be assured it is 100-percent clean, the shenanigans that go on at other places are definitely not nearly as prevalent at The Meadowlands.”

Third and maybe most important, by writing press releases praising the performance of a trainer who just received a major positive test, you are encouraging other trainers to use illegal substances as well.  Imagine you are a small-stable trainer at Pocono Downs . . . not only is Rene Allard scooping up all the purse money, while getting positive tests elsewhere, but the track that you are stabled at is praising his performance.  That trainer then comes to the conclusion that if he cheats, nothing bad will happen, he’ll win more races and pick up national attention in the process that maybe can even get him more owners.  If you disagree, I call your attention to the 1998 MLB home-run chase and the subsequent “Steroid-era” of baseball.  It’s the same concept, everyone knew Mark McGwire was cheating, but here he was, breaking records and on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  What more motivation does a struggling major league baseball player need to cheat?

In a perfect world, no horse trainer will cheat and everything will be on the level.  But that is a pipe-dream.  As long as there has been thoroughbred and standardbred racing, there has been cheating, much like as long as there has been Major League Baseball, there has been cheating.  It’s difficult enough to catch those cheating.  It seems that they are always one step ahead of the testing that is in place.  But, is it too much to ask that when a trainer is being investigated due to a positive test that includes a substance humans are given to help ease their pain when they are dying, that we not praise his performance? 

If you don’t think that this image of harness racing being a “dirty game” has leaked into the general population, you are mistaken.  For years I would be asked by people who knew little about harness racing, “oh yeah, the trotters . . . that’s all fixed right?”  It was hard enough having to defend that image because of infractions from 30 or 40 years ago.  But just the other day, while getting a haircut, one of the barbers asked me the following:

You worked at The Meadowlands right, they race the trotters . . . that’s all rigged right, they cheat?”

To which I replied that image is due to things that happened a long time ago and purse money is so high at the racetracks around here that it isn’t sensible to “fix races,” everyone has too much to lose.  He replied the following:

No I mean the trotters, they are given all kinds of drugs and steroids.  My friend bets horses and says you can’t play the trotters because they are all juiced up.”

This is a 20-something year-old barber who told me he had been to a racetrack once in his life and he believes that all harness horses are given illegal drugs.  If that doesn’t scare you, it really should.

The bottom line is press releases that praise trainers with recent major drug-infractions has a ripple effect that is hitting people who don’t even bet on harness racing.  Thanks to those kinds of stories, they probably never will.