Good guys win one, call it progress

It came as no surprise when harness driver Eric Ledford was cleared to race at the Meadowlands last month. It didn't really matter that he had been arrested just 21 months earlier, one of four people charged with a serious offense -- blood-doping horses to improve their performances -- or that he had been handed a 10 ½-year suspension. Harness and thoroughbred racing both have been notoriously ineffective when it comes to making even the most serious charges and suspensions stick.

The Ledford case figured to be no different, and it wasn't. Ledford hired a good lawyer, who, predictably, found a way to get a meaningful suspension reduced to a slap on the wrist.

When Ledford returned to the track Jan. 17 he seemed free and clear to pick up where he had left off. He was the third leading driver at the Meadowlands when arrested in early April of 2006 and was on pace to have his best year ever in terms of money-won.

It hasn't worked out that way. The night of January 17 has turned in to a harbinger of things to come. Ledford drove just three horses, all of them long shots, none of whom came close. One of the horses was 87-1.

The ensuing 30 days have been no different. Ledford's numbers at the Meadowlands have been horrendous. Through Feb. 17, he has won just three times from 61 drives and has finished in the money just 14 times for total earnings of $72,195.

It isn't that Ledford forgot how to drive during his absence. It's more a matter of him getting stuck with nothing but hopeless long shots, the leftovers after the Meadowlands' top drivers have had their picks. On Feb. 17, he had just two drives, a 30-1 shot and a 52-1 shot. A night earlier, he had four assignments -- a 40-1 shot, two 14-1 shots and a 13-1 shot.

What's going on here? It's probably a combination of things, among them the fact that Ledford no longer has his father, trainer Seldon Ledford behind him. Before his arrest, he was winning many of his races for the elder Ledford, who was also tied up in the blood-doping scandal and is still under suspension.

But that alone can't fully account for his dismal showing or the poor driving assignments he keeps getting. It seems that there are a lot of honest owners and trainers out there who don't want to have anything to do with Ledford.

"There are so many good drivers here, why go near someone with his baggage?" said one Meadowlands insider.

Could the Ledford story represent a breakthrough when it comes to the pari-mutuel games and the on-going battle between the good and bad guys? Typically, someone who gets caught breaking the rules isn't asked to pay for it by his or her own kind. Owners are all too willing to employ trainers who look like they win only because they have better drugs than the next guy. (You think for a minute trainer Patrick Biancone won't have a barn full of good horses when he returns from his cobra venom suspension?) And honest owners and trainers rarely speak up about racing's drug problems, even when they continually get their brains beaten in by the cheaters.

But maybe, just maybe, there are a few good people at the Meadowlands who have said enough is enough and, by not using Ledford, have taken a stand.

When Ledford returned, Meadowlands management made it clear that it wasn't happy he was back. But, as a state-run racetrack, its powers to ban the driver are limited and it had no choice but to allow him to compete. In the end, the Meadowlands may just get its wish and have a Ledford-free racing product.

If Ledford doesn't start winning some races soon, he's going to be forced to go somewhere else, no doubt to a lesser track. And he can't be sure that a privately-owned racetrack, which can pretty much throw out anyone it wants, is necessarily going to let him drive.

Eric Ledford's troubles didn't end after all when he got his license back. Nor has he gotten the last laugh. It normally doesn't work out this way. Call it progress.

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 wnfinley@aol.com.