Won't Get Fooled Again

Meet the new board, same as the old board. In its first big test under the new, open, responsive management of executive director Ingrid Fermin, the California Horse Racing Board proved itself quite capable of continuing the Keystone Kops routine perfected by the regime of former executive director Roy Wood.

The board bungled the Marty Wygod/Sweet Catomine episode to the extent where its case against Wygod--based on three charges--was dismissed by its own stewards before Wygod's team was able to present its side at an April 23 hearing. That's how impressed the stewards were with the investigation and presentation of CHRB senior special investigator Christopher Loop.

Because this is the new, responsive CHRB, it decided to file a formal complaint against Wygod April 11, two days after the owner's Sweet Catomine lost the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), and after an exhaustive three-hour investigation.

Charge number one, that Wygod "engaged in conduct detrimental to racing," is farcical on its face. The clause is a meaningless piece of business resorted to only out of desperation and the absence of anything of substance.

Charge number two, that Wygod didn't reveal the true condition of his horse before the Santa Anita Derby, is equally laughable. Wygod didn't offer up that his filly bled slightly in her final workout prior to the race. Somewhere between 80% and 90% of California racehorses bleed. Is there now a rule that each bleeding episode be announced, perhaps with a splotch of red on past performances? Do horsemen regularly reveal which of their charges are sore before entering them in claiming races hoping to lose them to an unwitting buyer?

Wygod was quoted before the race saying his filly "looks fantastic." He also said he was "apprehensive." Imagine, the horse losing with those kind of guarantees.

Charge number three was the smoking gun, that Wygod misrepresented the identity of Sweet Catomine when she left the Santa Anita grounds for therapeutic treatment. Is it possible Wygod, a hands-on owner, knew the filly was not identified correctly? Yes, it is. But unless the investigators saw him hunched down on the passenger side of the van when the filly was spirited away, where is the proof against him? The only offense Wygod could be found guilty of is a bad case of Derby Fever.

Loop spoke to the van driver, and must have (OK, this is the CHRB--should have) asked if Wygod gave him the order to misidentify the horse. Loop should have known right then, if he wasn't overly fatigued by his lengthy investigation, that the van driver had never spoken to Wygod in his life. He must also have discovered it was Wygod's farm manager Russell Drake who told the driver to keep the filly's identity low key. Of course, he then would have talked to Drake to get to the bottom of this crucial point, right? Wrong. Drake was kept out of the Loop.

A day after the charges were dismissed, Fermin, coming to the realization she'd backed the wrong horse, noted in a release she was "surprised, disappointed, and concerned Wygod had not been interviewed." Wygod claims Fermin was twice contacted and told of Wygod's readiness to be interviewed, yet he never heard back from her. If this is true, Fermin should be less surprised and more ashamed.

The board was equally competent in the pursuit of trainer Julio Canani. It initially found Canani blameless. Later, it brought charges against him under the absolute-insurer rule. After that, someone apparently read the rule and determined it didn't apply. The charges against Canani were dropped before his hearing.

Perhaps the board will take something from this mockery, to wit, it needn't jump helter-skelter into filing charges against one of its precious few remaining owners because media members and disgruntled bettors, upset to learn there's no such thing as a lock, decide to moan and weep uncontrollably in unison.

Maybe it will learn there is no need to bring charges as quickly as a jockey claims foul after a race; no reason to conduct a three-hour investigation when a two-week inquiry will do.

It has been said here the CHRB had minuscule shoes to fill with the departure of Wood. So far, unfortunately, the new CHRB is fitting into them all too comfortably.

Lenny Shulman is features editor of The Blood-Horse