I once heard a trainer say of a banned medication: "How can it be illegal if they can't test for it?" That, in a nutshell, helps explain racing's medication mess. There is, reverberating through virtually every backstretch in America, an almost inherent sense of mistrust among horsemen. If one trainer is winning at a high clip, he must be doing something illegal. If a once-hot trainer suddenly goes cold, the authorities are on to him. If a trainer with a 10% lifetime win percentage has a new strike rate of 25%, he's given up and moved to the dark side. Everyone thinks the other guy is getting an edge, so why not take one yourself? Getting caught is no picnic, but occasional fines, suspensions, and hefty legal bills are included in the price some horsemen have been willing to pay to live on, or over, the edge of the game's rules and regulations. But the price of cheating has just gone up. A federal investigation into an elaborate illegal gambling operation alleges New York trainer Greg Martin, son of Hall of Fame conditioner Frank "Pancho" Martin, gave a horse a performance-enhancing substance before it raced at Aqueduct in December 2003. The horse, (perhaps appropriately) named A One Rocket, was a $7,500 claim by Martin out of a Dec. 13 race he'd won by three-quarters of a length. Five days later, racing at the same six-furlong distance and jumped up to a $12,500 tag, he won by 10 lengths, improving his time by two full seconds. His Beyer Speed Figure jumped from 75 to 103. Horsemen and handicappers from California to New York have seen the same phenomenon again and again: horses running their eyeballs out after a change in trainers. The so-called "supertrainers" responsible for these form reversals may or may not be doing something illegally to get an edge. But until the 88-count indictment against 17 individuals was handed down Jan. 13, the worst a trainer could fear from getting caught giving an illegal performance-enhancer was a fine and suspension. Greg Martin, however, now faces up to 25 years in prison. Why? The federal government takes a much harsher view of racing than the sport seems to take of itself. Most racing commissions redistribute the winning purse of a horse disqualified after testing positive for a prohibited substance. The trainer is also sanctioned. In this case, however, the U.S. attorney considered the implications of interstate wagering and came to the conclusion that Martin and two others were attempting to "fix" a race, a federal crime. That decision should send cheers through the grandstand and chills down the spine of a cheating trainer. Race fixing, this indictment confirms, only requires an illegal substance and a dishonest individual.
REGULATING REBATERS This column previously suggested rebate shops--non-racing operations that provide financial incentives to lure gamblers away from the track--were a train wreck waiting to happen. Many of these businesses are in jurisdictions where there is little or no control over how they operate. It is not the least bit surprising the gambling ring in the A One Rocket race allegedly used rebaters based on the Isle of Man, Curacao, and in North Dakota, and on an Oklahoma Indian reservation. Racing cannot afford to allow its integrity to be defined or defrocked by these under-regulated businesses just because they promise to deliver pari-mutuel handle. It's time individual racetracks and horsemen's associations (who are just as responsible for approving simulcast contracts) either insist on an open-book policy from rebaters or stop doing business with them. To some, the Jan. 13 indictment delivered a black eye for horse racing. But on the issues of medication and rebate shops, the feds may have been doing us a favor.