Trainers don't like detention barns. Horses are creatures of habit, they will tell you, and putting one in an unfamiliar barn and stall will upset many of them, causing them to race poorly. Other trainers will say detention barns can lead to increased exposure to viruses, leading to sickness in the horse population.
The distaste trainers have for detention barns is one of the certainties in a game full of uncertainty. That's why it is so shocking to hear what is currently going on in the California horsemen's community.
A petition is making the rounds among trainers asking the California Horse Racing Board to build a detention barn to house horses up to 24 hours prior to racing. The petition drive was launched by trainers who are increasingly frustrated over what they see as unchecked cheating by a number of their peers, who they believe are giving performance-enhancing drugs to their horses and winning at unusually high percentages.
More than a handful of trainers have signed the petition, a source said. The number is believed to be closing in on 100. Be sure that nearly every person who signed the petition would probably not have to resort to a detention barn if they believed there was a better way to control the cheaters. The surprising support is merely a barometer measuring the level of frustration so many trainers are now feeling.
Incidentally, let's not downplay the power of a movement started by petition. It is, after all, what led to the downfall of Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as California's governor.
That so many trainers would ask for something they really do not want should be taken by the California Horse Racing Board as a cry for help in fighting the backstretch's war against drugs.
In truth, to have a war, you first must have two sides engaged, and that may not be the case. Many view this situation as one-sided, with the cheaters feeling little to no resistance, especially from the California Horse Racing Board, whose job it is in part to maintain the integrity of the sport. That sad situation, if true, should be an embarrassment to the members of the CHRB.
Racing isn't alone in having a drug problem. Track and field is going through a major upheaval following development of a test for the steroid tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG. There's no telling how much fallout that sport will have from a banned drug that certainly found its way into other sports. (In horse racing, anabolic steroids are looked upon as therapeutic medication and are not banned in most North American jurisdictions, but that's a subject for discussion on another day.)
But at least track and field is trying to face its problem head-on. Racing does not appear to be doing the same thing.
CHRB staff will take great exception to these comments and talk about all the great strides they have taken. But the people of the backstretch have spoken, and they're not buying the party line anymore.
For example, many California horsemen suspect the illegal milkshaking of horses is an ongoing problem, but the CHRB has elected not to take advantage of a pre-race test used at Woodbine in Canada and in some U.S. jurisdictions for harness racing. "Why not?" one trainer said. "Because they're afraid they'll get too many positives."
Increased surveillance would help deter some illegal activities, but it is an expensive undertaking. So, too, is state-of-the-art drug testing. For that matter, a detention barn won't be cheap, and it won't stop all cheating, since many performance-enhancing drugs do not have to be administered within 24 hours of a race. But what price is unreasonable if the result is increased integrity of the sport?
The bottom line is California's racing board must do something. It has lost all credibility with many trainers who have agreed that the best thing for racing may not be best for their own horses.