Thursday, April 06, 2006

New Scandal, New Stupidity

All hell broke loose in the harness racing business last week. Although the jugheads are completely outside my area of interest or competence, this case has brought forth some comments from the regulators that should make everybody sit up and take notice.

The events, so far: employees of Seldon Ledford, the second leading harness trainer in the country, with outfits in both Illinois and New Jersey, were arrested, including Ledford's son Eric, a driver at the Meadowlands, assistant trainer Ryan Dailey, and Dailey's wife, Ardena. Also arrested was veterinarian John Witmer. According to local reports, $150,000 worth of pharmaceuticals, many of them banned substances like EPO and morphine, were removed by New Jersey state police from the homes of Dailey and Witmer. The State of Illinois swiftly entered the picture, reportedly scratching Ledford trainees at Maywood Park and launching its own investigation.

Looks like possession charges are a slam dunk against the assistant trainer and the vet. After that, especially due to the comments of the New Jersey cops, things get a little murky.

First of all, say the police, these charges are the result of an 18 month investigation, during which time, it seems to me, hundreds of starters could have been treated with illegal substances and thousands of bettors duped. Yet, apparently, not once could anybody be caught in the act of administering an illegal drug, nor did numbers of bad post-race tests come back. Nevertheless, said one of the gumshoes: "We've been monitoring some of these horses and their form reversals for 18 months. Some of the changes in the horses, it's just unexplainable, except if performance-enhancing drugs are introduced."

So after a year and a half of studying form reversals, police charged the four, not with the administration of illegal drugs, but with race fixing. It seems the cops seriously intend to use their expert conclusions as evidence in a trial.

None of us want to see cheaters get away with it, but there are clearly some problems with the New Jersey approach. Most obvious, from a horseman's point of view, is the cops' very definition of "race fixing". Classically, fixing a race means conspiring to arrive at a pre-arranged outcome for the purpose of cashing a bet. By all accounts, both factual and legendary, race fixing involves cooperation among race participants. On an individual basis, TRYING TO WIN A RACE IS NOT RACE FIXING. It's what everybody's supposed to be doing. It's what a trainer does when he changes a horse's nutrition, its blinkers, or its shoes. It's the trainer's job to win, and in the case of a poor performer, or a new horse in the barn, reversal of form is precisely the desired outcome. The idea that doing this too well could constitute proof of wrongdoing is ludicrous.

What the regulators and law enforcers are supposed to do is gather evidence of actual rule violations. Except for the seizure of banned drugs (not at the racetrack, by the way), this doesn't seem to have happened in New Jersey. I could only imagine that when the cops go to court to explain how they investigated for eighteen months without obtaining any physical evidence of illegal drug administration, their competence as investigators will be seriously questioned long before they ever get a chance to dazzle the judge with their handicapping skills.

Meanwhile, all you 20 percent (or more) winning trainers better start looking over your shoulders. If serious reversal of form becomes evidence of criminal activity, there could be hard times ahead, including the re-introduction of witch hunts and show trials into polite society. In some ways, it has already started. As well documented in this blog, we have already seen the criminalization of baking soda in many jurisdictions, without a shred of supporting scientific evidence, because of its reputed ability to "move a horse up". Stay tuned.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Doug said...

I spent the first part of my training life training harness horses in the NJ area and I have a good feel for what you are writing about. Unlike thoroughbred racing, a "reversial of form" is a much bigger deal in harness racing. It is quite common to be called in front of the presiding judge (steward) for winning a race after finishing back in previous races. They dont want to see that! I can remember no instance while training thoroughbreds of this happening. I don't see how a good lawyer can not but get these people off. The authorities have nothing to stand on. They also have to prove that there were betting action on the races to back up results. Pretty hard to prove! They are grasping at straws. Lastly, if they were actually using EPO and morphine, their tests would come up dirty. Make no mistakes about it! It is a pretty bad situation when a vet is jailed for having access to such drugs in his own practice. Now if they were actually found on the farm, that is another story, but still does not prove they were actually being used illegaly. There are legitimate therapuetic cases for their use, even in race stables.

12:35 AM  
Blogger Wallyhorse said...

Well:

The problem has been that many people believe Harness races are "fixed", even when they aren't, and trotters can simply get bad trips, forced to super-fast fractions, etc., which can simply explain such "form reversals."

The other problem is the belief of there being "designer drugs" that can't be detected in horses (and humans in other sports), and until it can be proven otherwise, these are likely going to continue.

Walt

4:43 PM  

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