Silent Movie

By Larry Levin
In 1977, Kent Hollingsworth, then editor of The Blood-Horse, began a commentary on racing's drug regulation as follows, "About the only people capable of doing anything with the medication problem are the Marx brothers. It is their kind of zany material...We suspect Harpo wrote some of the permissive medication rules...The first time (a drug overage) happens, Harpo honks his horn; the second time, he whistles to bring in Groucho and Chico, so that...all the Marx brothers can set about flailing (the trainer and vet) with baseball bats."

The biggest change in the last 28 years is that drug regulation has regressed from a slapstick comedy to a silent movie, one with a flickering picture that often goes dark. At a hearing July 8, a Kentucky legislative subcommittee requested records which reportedly show that in 2002 and 2003 the Kentucky Racing Commission (KRC) failed to take action in response to approximately 20 drug positives, including those for methadone, scopolamine, and lidocaine. Jim Gallagher, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority (KHRA), the successor agency to the KRC, said he uncovered the missed positives after he began working for the KHRA in September 2004. He contacted the testing laboratory at Iowa State University, which told him it had telephoned the information to the KRC, but that the regulators failed to file a written report. The KHRA is now requesting the state inspector general conduct an investigation.

Meanwhile, a pending lawsuit in California seeks disclosure of records which might show how the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) settled infractions in private with no public notification. On a related matter, Dr. Rick Arthur described in The Blood-Horse of March 19, 2005, how the California tracks and horsemen dealt with overages for total carbon dioxide (evidence of illegal milkshaking) in the absence of CHRB regulations. The cases were handled behind closed doors and without penalties, according to Arthur, "because our goal has been to eliminate the problem rather than to discipline anyone."

Racing officials profess concern about public confidence in the integrity of the game, while admitting they have ignored some violations and treated others sub rosa. When concerned individuals complain the sport may be tolerating cheating, some attack the critics for lacking proof. Of course, regulatory outsiders don't have the power to conduct searches and seizures, take testimony, prosecute cases, or even obtain access to closely held data such as laboratory test results. Yet everyone is expected to trust the appointees to do a thorough job, even when they openly confess to ignoring drug positives or engaging in a catch-and-release program. Earlier this year, trainer Jeff Mullins received a lot of grief for calling bettors "idiots," but some regulators treat the entire racing community as dim-witted children who don't need to know what mommy and daddy are doing.

If regulators had the backbone to stand behind their decisions, the process would be out in the open. The almost obsessive secrecy of most racing boards suggests that ignored drug positives, privately cut deals, slaps on the wrist, and undocumented warnings would not withstand scrutiny, and might reveal a far deeper problem than officials acknowledge.

In Matthew Simmons' recent book, Twilight in the Desert, the author describes the effect of Saudi Arabia obscuring the amount of its oil reserves: "History has frequently shown that once secrecy envelops the culture of either a company or a country, those most surprised when the truth comes out are often the insiders who created the secrets in the first place."

Racing has developed a murky way of doing business. Concealing troubling information does not protect the sport--it allows the problem to grow. Nor is keeping the process hidden going to silence the growing number of people who have had enough. As New Orleans musician Dr. John put it, "If ignorance is bliss, why ain't more people happy?"