Never mind the wheels of justice. Even investigations grind slowly. Last Monday’s FBI bust of 27 individuals who derive their living from the Thoroughbred racing industry had been five years in the making.
The Feds said that they found out about the PED scandal accidentally, that the data fell in their lap while conducting another, unrelated investigation.
Realistically, the story began to unfold when in 2016 The Jockey Club hired an international investigative organization, 5 Stones Intelligence, to analyze the infrastructure of horse racing’s pari-mutuel industry.
Indeed, 5Si found evidence of criminal activity and recommended that federal law enforcement should be notified. On Monday, the results of those FBI findings hit the equine fan.
There was proof; taped conversations, wire taps and such, that the whispers of veteran horseplayers and activists were true, that no level of expert horsemanship could produce such wondrous performances and form reversals, as if my magic.
Suddenly, these suspicions were not unfounded, not the paranoid rantings of disgruntled losers. This black magic was, and is, for real. And you can bet that more rotten apples will be shaken from this tree. It’s no longer a case if but when.
The situation has become so dire that the austere Bloodhorse [“Horseplayers Call for Big Changes in Sport’s Regulation”] had to recognize that there’s gambling going here, so they rounded up a few experts with credibility in the gambling space.
Jeff Platt, founder of the Horseplayers Association of North America, when questioned by journalist Frank Angst, responded in part: “…I understand you need to have people who know racing [investigate]. But what I’ve seen is that when a serious violation occurs that requires them to really come down hard on a trainer, they refuse to do it…
“Ultimately, they view those trainers as one of their own… They won’t seriously punish someone from the inner circle and they instead settle and deliver a slap on the wrist… Those ties have to be severed in favor of independent regulation.”
Well respected professional horseplayer Mike Maloney had this reaction: “How outrageous is it that currently the oversight of the sport is conducted by the tracks or by commissioners with close ties to the tracks? That’s not an effective structure for any kind of real oversight.”
Most industry reaction was predictable: “The severity of the allegations should come as no surprise…” wrote Ed Martin, President of the Association of Racing Commissioners International in the March 10 edition of Paulick Report.
“[This has] been openly discussed at ARCI meetings in recent years as racing commissions moved to actively involve other enforcement entities and police agencies in efforts to utilize the full gamut of government authority to combat what we all knew was transpiring.”
What Martin failed to note, however, is that at no time has his organization entertained the notion of independent, federal intervention by supporting the 2019 Horseracing Integrity Act. Independent testing and regulating could make his position obsolete.
Said Alan Foreman, CEO of Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, on the “At The Races” radio show, March 10: “The good news is the industry is capable of rooting this kind of conduct out, they’re able to deal with it and send a message of deterrence, and I think that is the message here…
“So the question therefore that has to be asked is what is the crisis? What is the overriding federal interest that requires the federal government to cast aside the states in a sweeping takeover of a state sanctioned, state regulated industry that does its job well? The answer is there is none…The system worked.”
Not long after the FBI story broke, independent media was swift to react. Art Wilson, Los Angeles Daily News horse racing beat writer, suggested that anyone who feels they are the subject of innuendo and false suspicion should welcome FBI scrutiny to prove they are playing by the rules.
By week’s end, coincidentally, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that stated: “Our horses and jockeys deserve an unbiased, independent national anti-doping authority. Fortunately, the Horseracing Integrity Act (HIA) is moving through Congress…
“I have held off supporting the HIA until now because I’ve questioned whether the benefits of creating a new layer of federal regulation would outweigh the burdens. However, these federal indictments have convinced me that horse racing needs immediate and drastic action to fix a broken system…”
In a June 2013 interview conducted by Ray Paulick, Vince Mares, New Mexico Racing Commission executive director, in responding to the sudden death of Ruidoso Futurity winner Cartel Quick, said he is “absolutely convinced” that the abuse of therapeutic drug clenbuterol and other banned substances are responsible for unexplained sudden death of racehorses.
Clenbuterol was among the substances cited in Monday’s FBI report.
Although cleared of wrongdoing by the California Horse Racing Board based on post-mortem toxicology tests, seven “sudden death” horses trained by Baffert died for a variety of reasons, including cardiac arrest, pulmonary hemorrhage and internal bleeding.
Ultimately, CHRB suggested that “barn contamination” was the likely cause of death of seven otherwise healthy animals over a 17-month period, from November 2011 until March of 2013. Trace elements of rodenticide was discovered in one of the Baffert horses apparently led to their conclusion.
Two years later, the Baffert-trained American Pharoah won the 2015 Triple Crown in 2015 after a drought of 37 years. Three years later Baffert won his second Triple Crown with Justify.
In September of 2019, the New York Times reported that Justify had tested positive for banned performance-enhancing drug scopolamine on April 8, 2018 following his win in the Santa Anita Derby. Resultingly, the paper stated the colt should not have been eligible to run in the Kentucky Derby.
The colt’s win at Santa Anita gave him enough qualifying points to gain Kentucky Derby entrance on May’s first Saturday. According to the Times, the CHRB dealt with the failed drug test behind closed doors instead of filing a public complaint per usual. Reportedly, Baffert was not told about the test result until three weeks later.
CHRB executive director Rick Baedeker acknowledged that it was a sensitive matter due to the timing, adding that the Board did not want to rush their investigation. Four months later, the board dismissed the inquiry altogether during a closed-door executive meeting.
The CHRB said it suspected that the colt may have eaten contaminated food. Scopolamine can be found in jimson weed, which sometimes gets mixed in with feed and can enter a horse’s system.
Yesterday at Oaklawn Park, Baffert won his seventh Rebel Stakes, an important Derby prep, with the magnificent colt Nadal, gamely withstanding strong early and late pressure to remain undefeated in three lifetime starts, earning enough points to secure a stall in the Churchill Downs starting gate.
At his Santa Anita base shortly thereafter, the Baffert-trained Charlatan remained undefeated in two starts, winning his two-turn debut, as Nadal had earlier, beating the runnerup by 10-1/4 lengths.
Saturday’s victories gave Baffert two more bullets to fire at this year’s Kentucky Derby, when and if it is run. Nadal and Charlatan join Authentic and Thousand Words in the runup to Derby 146. Eight Rings is waiting in the wings, as is Azul Coast and High Velocity.
Perhaps the entire industry should follow the Hall of Famer’s sage recommendation that “horse racing needs immediate and drastic action to fix a broken system.”