Dan Liebman

Dan Liebman Editor-in-Chief

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Commentary: Cloud Cover

Clouds were plentiful at Monmouth Park Oct. 26-27 for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Stalled over the area, they dumped several inches of rain on racing’s biggest parade. You can’t control the weather.

This comes to mind because of the statement from trainer Patrick Biancone after he was suspended for possession of the nerve blocker alpha-cobratoxin, or cobra venom. The drug is a Class A medication under the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority Uniform Drug and Medication Classification Schedule, meaning because it “has a high potential to affect performance” it carries the highest penalty ranking from the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

Biancone’s suspension began Nov. 1, after the Breeders’ Cup, but he agreed to have his Breeders’ Cup starters transferred to his assistant. According to his press release: “Breeders’ Cup is a celebration of our sport’s greatest athletes—the horses—and their breeders and owners. It does not deserve the distraction that my situation would create. I do not want to cast a cloud over racing’s most important day.”

Imagine the surprise, then, of those who saw Biancone on the backstretch of Monmouth during Breeders’ Cup week.

The Kentucky ruling only said Biancone could not be the “trainer of record” for the Breeders’ Cup horses; it did not bar him from the grounds of racetracks until Nov. 1.

Still, his presence did “cast a cloud” over racing’s biggest event, and unlike the rain clouds, it was a cloud something could be done about. Frank Zanzuccki, executive director of the New Jersey Racing Commission since 1992, did do something. He called Biancone and asked him to remove himself from the Monmouth backstretch, which the 55-year-old French-born trainer did.

It makes one wonder why the Kentucky ruling addressed who could be the “trainer of record” for the Breeders’ Cup, but allowed Biancone to wait and begin his suspension less than a week after the event. It also makes one wonder why, if he didn’t want to cast a “cloud” over the event, Biancone showed up.

In many instances, perception is also reality. Biancone’s mere presence on the backside was not good for racing, and Zanzuccki realized that. Anything Biancone wanted to express to his assistant about the horses could have been done over the phone or during the course of a dinner.

Zanzuccki should be applauded for his firm stance.

Perhaps the most important thing to note of the Biancone suspension is he becomes the first trainer in Kentucky who cannot profit from his suspension. The Racing Authority has the right to examine his financial records, and indeed it should.

“Trainer of record” is important in that it means the person ultimately responsible, like Biancone, should illegal medications be found in his barn. But, in many ways, “trainer of record” is a meaningless term.

Racing commissions should insist that if a trainer is handed a lengthy suspension because of medication infractions, the horses in his care may not be transferred to one of his assistants. Instead, they should be sent to other trainers. In this way, the suspended trainer cannot continue training the horses by proxy, which occurs routinely today.

Commissioners must make sure the horses are not taken to a training center where the suspended trainer can oversee their care; or peep through a hole in the fence at the track each morning while speaking to his assistants by phone.

Enact tough penalties for drug violators, and those that are breaking the rules will think long and hard about the consequences. A trainer that must sit for six months, and then return to find no horses in the barn when he returns, may think twice before cheating.

Racing has an image problem. Racing commissions can help change this.