Just over a year ago, the federal government indicted New York-based Thoroughbred trainer Greg Martin and 16 others, charging them with participating in an illegal betting operation and allegedly "fixing" a race by giving a horse a prohibited, performance-enhancing substance.
The feds did something no racing commission is capable of doing: send a message to suspected cheaters that winning a race with a doped horse is a serious crime. Martin faces up to 25 years in prison.
That same message was broadcast to the Standardbred industry March 31, this time by the New Jersey State Police, who charged a top harness driver and three others associated with one of the sport's leading stables with conspiring to fix races at Meadowlands and Freehold Raceway.
According to the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., police raided a Monmouth County racing stable rented to trainer Seldon Ledford, along with the homes of Ledford assistant Ryan Dailey and veterinarian John R. Witmer. The published report said "significant quantities" of the banned drug Aranesp were seized, along with "suspicious liquids and syringes."
Witmer and Dailey were arrested, as was Dailey's wife, Ardena. Later that day, Ledford's son, Eric, was arrested in the drivers' room at Meadowlands. Seldon Ledford has not been charged, though 50 horses under his care were put on indefinite suspension from racing.
"They were doping horses with a foreign substance to make them win races," Lt. John Zulawski, who is in charge of the investigation, told the Star-Ledger.
The Daileys face up to 10 years in prison for their alleged race-fixing roles. Eric Ledford and Witmer could be jailed up to 18 months for conspiring to fix a race.
Horses trained by Seldon Ledford won 48 of 180 starts (27%) this year at Meadowlands, putting him on top of the trainer standings. He ranks second in North America by money won and third in races won in 2006, according to the United States Trotting Association. Ledford told the newspaper his horses were not drugged and that his son had nothing to do with training the stable's horses.
The harness industry can't say it wasn't warned about Aranesp, or darbepoetin, approved by the FDA in 2002 to help treat people suffering from anemia associated with chronic kidney failure. Stan Bergstein, the sport's leading commentator, wrote about Aranesp being a problem in human athletics the year it went on the market. Similar but more powerful than Epogen, Aranesp is misused by athletes to increase red blood cells that carry oxygen to muscles and reduce fatigue.
Amgen, the biotechnology giant that developed Aranesp, worked closely with the International Olympic Committee, the World Anti-Doping Agency, and others to develop tests to catch cheating athletes. The horse industry is close to developing a test, according to Dr. Scot Waterman, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.
Olympic athletes have been busted for using the drug, but not through simple post-competition testing. In one instance, three cross-country skiers caught for blood-doping were tested out of competition. That may be the only way to catch some cheaters, since the benefits of these performance-enhancing substances last well beyond the chemical presence of the drug.
"We tested them at private homes where they were staying," IOC president Jacques Rogge told the Associated Press. "I'm a strong believer in unannounced, out-of-competition testing. This is the strongest deterrent and most effective way."
Unlike human sports, Thoroughbred racing doesn't conduct surprise tests between starts in search of blood-doping drugs. By relying only on race-day tests, that leaves the regulators of our sport living in yesterday's world.