At just about the exact that moment that a consultant was telling industry leaders at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing that there has been a "massive" drop in confidence among racing fans when it comes to integrity issues, a report came out of Kentucky that veterinarian Rod Stewart is about to be welcomed back to the state's racetracks, despite a five-year ban for possession of cobra venom still hanging over his head. Should we laugh or cry?
The marketing guy is right: people have had it, particularly when it comes to drugs, illegal and otherwise. And it is no doubt starting to hurt the sport where it counts -- on the bottom line. People who don't trust the game won't bet on the game. But racing continues to respond with nothing but weak answers to serious problems. Case in point: Dr. Stewart.
I don't care what the guy did through the courts, how good his lawyers are, what kind of stay or injunction he got or that he's now throwing his wife under the bus, blaming her for packing the cobra venom in his bag, someone at the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission needed to take a stand and see to it that Dr. Rod gets nowhere near a racetrack until his five-year suspension is over. How can the betting public possibly have complete faith in Kentucky's racing product when a vet banned for possession of cobra venom is roaming the state's backstretches treating horses?
And then there's trainer Patrick Biancone. His reasons for leaving France remain murky and we know he left Hong Kong after receiving a 10-month suspension for use of an illegal drug there. Still, he was welcomed in American racing, both by wealthy and powerful owners and racing commissioners who saw no harm in giving him a license. His career was steam-rolling right along until he was caught up in the same cobra venom scandal (the stuff was found in his refrigerator) and suspended for a year.
It was a laughably light suspension for a trainer with a serious history of problems. Biancone is back, training in California and rebuilding his stable. Considering his background, Biancone should be toxic, but owners know that he wins and that he can make them money. So, they will come back to him, probably in droves. He has already started horses for Thomas Van Meter II and Edmund Gann. Shame on them.
Did consultant Jonathan Chavez ask any of the racing leaders gathered in Tucson, Ariz., what they plan to do about the sobering report he delivered? I doubt it, but maybe the news that Chavez delivered was so troubling that the sport will finally start dealing with its integrity problems in an appropriate manner, which is to say maybe it will finally grow a spine.
The thoroughbred industry can start by taking a page from the playbook of harness racing, which does a much better job policing itself. For virtually every major stakes race held in that game, horses have to go to a detention barn beforehand. Sometimes it's for 24 hours. Sometimes it's even for 48 hours. Anyone betting on a harness stakes race can bet it with confidence, knowing that it's highly unlikely that any of the competitors are racing on illegal drugs. There is nothing comparable in thoroughbred racing. Why not?
I've been harping on the Lasix issue for years and don't intend to stop. Here is a drug that has never been proven to do a horse one bit of good when it comes to bleeding and can mask other drugs. Yet the industry continues to condone the madness. Nearly 100 percent of its competitors race on the drug, which cannot possibly be a good thing for the horses, the sport or the sport's image. Serious about integrity? Ban Lasix now.
Suspensions? Start handing out some with some teeth. Stewart should have gotten 25 years, effectively driving him out of the business. And how can the California racetracks justify giving Biancone stalls? Just tell the guy to get lost. It's within their powers.
Suspend any horse who tests positive for drugs for six months and not just the trainer involved. Maybe then owners will think twice about using a guy who isn't afraid to take an illegal edge.
When a trainer is suspended, do not let his or her horses run under the name of any of his employees or relatives. These guys get suspended and keep training their horses via cell phone. That has to stop. If a trainer is suspended and the owner wants to keep the horses running, then the owner has to turn the horses, at least temporarily, over to someone else.
Invest the kind of serious money that needs to be spent on drug testing labs and drug testing technology.
All racing commissions need to start a program whereby the blood samples of horses that have been tested are frozen and saved. The program should put a particular emphasis on trainers who routinely perform miracles. Once new, more sophisticated drug tests are developed, use them and look back at your collection of samples. This would be an excellent deterrent.
Has racing really conquered the problem of milkshakes or other alkaline agents that neutralize lactic acid? Some pretty smart people believe that milkshaking remains an issue and that some racing commissions are not vigilant in their testing. Just as The Jockey Club recommended, the solution is to publish the TCO2 levels for every horse tested.
Racing's image has been battered in recent years, and no one needed a consultant to tell you that. People have had it, both with the problems and with the sport's feeble solutions. It can change, but it's going to take a much, much better effort than anything that's been offered so far. Let's get started. Before it is too late.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.