- Horse Racing - Sport needs to get serious about drugs

Bill Finley
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Friday, January 14
Sport needs to get serious about drugs

What made A One Rocket run so unbelievably fast in a Dec. 18, 2003 race at Aqueduct? According to government authorities, it wasn't the sudden sprouting of wings but a milkshake. It has been alleged that trainer Gregory Martin, who was indicted Thursday, gave the claimer a baking soda concoction that is said to keep horses from tiring before the New York bred won the $12,000 race by 10 lengths earning an inconceivable 103 Beyer.

It's an ugly tale and it was all over the New York tabloids Friday. According to reports, the on-going investigation into horse doping will spread to California and Florida tracks and involves other races at the NYRA. By the time this story has been fully played out, there will evidently be plenty of people to blame, but no one or nothing more so than the sport itself.

The industry has never gotten truly serious about cleaning up the problem of illegal drugs. Had it, this never would have happened.

Had Greg Martin or anyone affiliated with his stable milkshaked A One Rocket before the 2003 race they probably weren't too worried about getting caught. New York doesn't test for the stuff, even though it delays muscle fatigue and can cause a horse to run faster, even though there have been rumors of its widespread use for years, even though it can be fatal to a horse if improperly administered.

In New York, a trainer up to no good can use the substance as liberally as he or she wants without any serious fear of facing penalties. Martin isn't in trouble because of a bad test but, apparently, because the feds stumbled upon talk of doping the horse while going after a gambling ring with wire taps.

Santa Anita currently tests for milkshakes and plans are in the works to start testing at Gulfstream and all California tracks. Experimental tests were administered last summer at the California tracks and 10 percent of those tested came back positive for the substance. No penalties were levied during that period.

Still, other states, New York among them, have done nothing to react to the problem. In most cases, it's a matter of money. It's believed that it costs about $1 million to set up a milkshake testing system, money the tracks and state racing commissions haven't been willing to spend. In New York, the cost of being so parsimonious is a scandal that will bludgeon the sport's image.

There are other ways to deter cheaters besides drug testing. It's pretty hard to dope a horse if the animal is under constant surveillance. Had the NYRA used a detention barn system it's highly unlikely anyone would have thought they could get away with doping a horse like A One Rocket. It's too cumbersome and costly to use a detention barn for every race, but there's no reason why they can't be used on a random basis and for all major races. NYRA flirted with using a detention barn for the 2003 Belmont but caved in without a fight after trainer Bobby Frankel, who would win the race with Empire Maker, complained.

Thoroughbred racing needs to take a cue from harness racing, a sport that has gotten very serious about cleaning up its act.

The use of milkshakes seemed to begin in harness racing and that sport reacted to stop the problem. Virtually every harness track in North America tests for them. Several harness tracks, the Meadowlands among them, have detention barns. At the Meadowlands, horses are detained for 24 hours before all major stakes races and for ordinary races chosen on a random basis. At the Little Brown Jug in Ohio, horses are detained for 48 hours before a race. The idea is that any drugs given to them before they go into the detention barn will be long out of their systems by race time.

The game will never be pristine. There's too much money involved and too many people who think cheating is the answer. The public will always look skeptically at trainers who become overnight magicians. Martin, by the way, was 31-for-329 (9.4 percent) from 1999 through 2002 before going 68 for 319 (21.3 percent) from 2003 through early 2005. There will always be new drugs coming out that can't be detected.

But the people who bet on the sport and the people who own and train horses and play by the rules deserve a better effort from the industry. It's time for the sport to spend the money necessary and put in the effort it needs to win the battle. It can't afford to be meek. Its integrity is a priceless commodity.


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