How serious is the drug problem in contemporary sports? Serious enough that President Bush, a former partner in Major League Baseball's Texas Rangers, has called for a White House summit to examine the use of steroids among amateur and professional athletes participating in football, basketball, hockey, baseball, and track and field.
Though nearly every human sport has had its share of drug problems, the controversy jumped to a whole new level following the federal indictments of four men charged with running a steroid-distribution ring out of a Northern California laboratory. Two of the men are or were personal trainers for some of the biggest stars in baseball and track and field, including home run king Barry Bonds.
Bonds and many others linked to the indicted men have denied using steroids. But the suspicions already have tainted the single-season record of 73 home runs set by Bonds in 2001 to the point baseball historians want to place an asterisk next to the number. Of course, there also were suspicions about the man who set the record Bonds broke: Mark McGwire's 70-home-run season in 1998 may have been fueled in part by the diet supplement andro, which is banned in many other sports because of the steroidal effects it has.
Steroids are considered a therapeutic medication for horses and are not a problem in the same sense that they are in human sports. But what has happened to baseball and other sports easily could happen in horse racing.
Long before the indictments of the four Balco Laboratories associates, there was considerable skepticism over the achievements of Bonds, McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and other baseball sluggers. "Before" and "after" photographs showed vast differences in their physiques and muscle mass.
There is similar skepticism in racing now, aimed at trainers who have enjoyed unprecedented success --some of them in the claiming ranks and others at the highest level of the game. The skeptics believe a common thread among these trainers is performance-enhancing drugs distributed by someone with ties to a chemical laboratory.
As far-fetched as that sounds, think about how much is at stake in a sport with $1 billion in purses and $15 billion in pari-mutuel handle. An unraced 2-year-old recently sold for $4.5 million, and his sire was purchased in a deal that put his value in excess of $60 million. If cheaters are driven by money, there are more than a few vehicles to test drive.
If that is the case, and if investigators who seem to be a few steps behind the cheaters finally catch up, then racing will have to apply asterisks to some of its existing records.
Let's hope the skeptics are wrong; that inordinately high winning percentages are more attributable to old-fashioned horsemanship than to pharmaceutical fixations.
But there's one way to find out: tighten backstretch security, conduct more searches of veterinary vehicles, employ better trained personnel, freeze test samples, and improve the testing program.
For those who are caught cheating, throw them out of the game...forever.
MARYLAND, HIS MARYLAND
It is amazing to see Maryland's legislative machinations over William Rickman, owner of Delaware Park, who is said to be the gambling industry's largest single political contributor in the Free State.
The hand-wringing was on the wall as the state Senate flip-flopped over which of Rickman's Maryland properties would be the landing strip for slot machines. First it was Rickman's harness track in Ocean City, then his off-track betting parlor in Dorchester County. The Senate bill that finally passed designated the machines go to a "rural" track.
Just by coincidence, Rickman is "planning" a rural track. In fact, it's been in the planning stages for some time, apparently just waiting for those slots to arrive.