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A conversation at the track

"I never did trust her?" Half-Empty Harry said as he stared down at his Racing Form, searching for the winner of the next race.

"Who?" I asked, thinking he must be talking about some filly that had cost him a few bucks.

"The Queen," he said.

"Queen Weezy? When are you going to stop betting on Queen Weezy? She just doesn't want to win. Or run third, for that matter."

"No, not Queen Weezy," Half-Empty said, somewhat gruffly, probably recalling the last time he bet on the hapless daughter of Monarchos. She hasn't hit the board in more than a year, but Half-Empty, out of loyalty to her sire, one of his all-time favorites, always throws a few bucks her way.

"Who then? Quiet Queen? Queen July? Queen Frostine? Quinton's Queen?" I struggled to remember the queens I had seen at the track. "You're not still sore over Queen LBK, are you? Bless her heart, she couldn't outrun me."

"No, no, no," Half-Empty said, frustrated. "The real queen."

"What real queen?"

"She always seemed shifty to me," Half-Empty continued. "Have ya ever noticed she never looks ya in the eye. What kinda person can't look ya in the eye? A crook, that's what kind. Crooks avoid eye-contact. It's a well-known fact. And that smile of hers -- ya call that a smile? It's more of a whatayacallit -- ya know, a smile that isn't really a smile."

"A smirk? A simper?" I said, trying to help.

"Yeah, both those," Half-Empty said, motioning to the bartender to bring us another refreshment. Returning to his Racing Form, which he had spread out on the bar, Half-Empty scanned the entries for the next race, circling the names of selected trainers with a red Sharpie.

"But what queen are you talking about?" I said, still puzzled.

"The queen, the queen," Half-Empty said, looking up from his Form, his voice rising. "The queen of England."

"What! You think Queen Elizabeth is a shifty crook?"

"If the shoe fits," Half-Empty said, raising his hands, palms up. "The queen likes to win races just like anybody else, don't she. Ya know, don't ya, that her horse was all hopped up when he won that race at Epcot?"

"Ascot," I corrected. "But the horse wasn't hopped."

"He tested positive, didn't he? Ya don't call that hopped?"

"She tested positive," I said.

"The queen?"

"No, the horse, Estimate. She's owned by the queen, and she -- the horse, not the queen -- tested positive for morphine after winning last year's Ascot Gold Cup. It just became public."

"That's what I'm telling ya," Half-Empty said. "The queen hopped her horse, or she told somebody else to hop the horse by dipping into the old illicit soup latrine, if ya know what I mean. Doesn't that make her a shifty crook, or is drugging horses OK now? I can't wait to see what the New York Times and PETA have to say about this."

"I'd like to see that myself," I said. "But I think you're overreacting here, Half-Empty. Several horses in England have tested positive for morphine, at least five in addition to the queen's, but that doesn't necessarily mean anybody's hopping horses. It's obviously a case of contamination."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Half-Empty said, exasperated. "I don't care if the queen's trainer is a member of the Round Table. That's what they all say, isn't it, all them crooks: contamination. Sir Lancelot don't know contamination from coagulation. Next thing, ya'll tell me Lasix doesn't mask other drugs."

"Sir Michael Stoute, as far as I know, isn't a member of the Round Table," I said and then drank deeply from my refreshment. "But why are you so skeptical, Half-Empty? Contamination is commonplace; it's everywhere; it's why no-tolerance policies are equivalent to no-intelligence. Don't you remember that horse that tested positive for caffeine after he won the All-American Futurity? Stolis Winner I think his name was. It turned out there had been a party in the test barn the night before the race, and at this party people had coffee, sodas, chocolate cake and all manner of things containing caffeine. At the test barn! It was obvious contamination."

"I'm no stranger to chocolate cake," Half-Empty said. "In fact, I know a thing or two about chocolate cake, and I don't ever recall morphine being in the old Betty Crocker mix. Are ya trying to tell me the queen's horse ate a piece of chocolate cake?"

"Not chocolate cake exactly, but something like it," I said. "Look, what possible motive could the queen have had for trying to cheat?"

"Are ya kidding? How long ya been in this game?" Half-Empty said, sarcastically, as if he had asked a question of a child too young to understand its implications. "That horse was 6-1!"

"But why would the queen try to put over a 6-1 winner?"

"Ya ever see the electric bill for one of them castles?" Half-Empty said. "The queen must have a stable of castles, starting with that Buckingham joint. The upkeep on them things is blinding, and that's a well-known fact."

"But it was probably just nanograms that we're talking about here," I said, getting frustrated and reaching for my refreshment. "Do you know what a nanogram is?"

"A new kind of hop?" Half-Empty said.

"Not quite. A nanogram is a unit of measurement," I explained. "Essentially, it's the smallest detectable and measurable amount. A nanogram is so small you can't see it, so small an army of nanograms could get lost on a speck of dust. One billionth of a gram -- that's a nanogram. And in many of these cases, horses are testing positive at levels measured in nanograms, or at levels too small to have any possible influence on performance. That suggests contamination."

"Yeah, right, measure me this, then: If these nannygrams don't affect the way horses run, then why are trainers hopping horses with them?"

I thought about banging my head against the bar, although banging Half-Empty's head would have been more to the point. Instead, though, I gulped down my refreshment, ordered another round and asked Half-Empty what he liked in the upcoming race.

"Ya see these red marks here," he said, pointing to his Racing Form. "I've circled the names of the cheaters and the dopers."

"How do you know they're cheaters and dopers?"

"That's a dumb question," Half-Empty said, shaking his head. "They win a lot of races. I'm gonna box 'em all in exactas."

"And if you win, I guess that'll confirm your assumption that they're cheaters and dopers."

"Yeah, of course. Now, you're learning. And if I lose, that'll confirm it even more."

"Make mine a double," I called to the bartender.