'The racing industry needs to ... get their act together'

June 22, 2008|By LARRY YANOS

Congress can't figure out the war in Iraq and hasn't helped the consumer with the escalating gas prices, so now it has decided to take on the thoroughbred horse racing industry.

A very complex issue, to say the least.

The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection held hearings last week in Washington, D.C., with politicians and horsemen of varying degrees offering their opinions.

Like his horse in the Belmont Stakes, trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. was missing in action. The Hagerstown native was among the prominent invitees, but said some health concerns prevented him from attending.

Another trainer, Charles Town, W.Va., native John Servis, wasn't invited to the "dance," but he shared some remarks on Saturday from his barn at Philadelphia Park in Bensalem, Pa.


"(Horse racing is) a nightmare right now," the trainer of 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Smarty Jones said. "The rules and regulations differ from state to state. You can use steroids in one state and not another, you can use certain drugs in one state and not another. The racing industry needs to standardize things and get their act together."

Servis said it wouldn't be a bad idea to get back to the basics.

"How about giving the horse hay, oats and water?" Servis said. "And forget Lasix and some of that other stuff. If a horse is bleeding or has some breathing difficulties, give it some time off. Things they're discussing in Congress right now are just Band-Aids to the problem. The horsemen have some real issues to address."

Servis used Pennsylvania as an example of the inconsistency of the rules and regulations.

"They are coming down on steroids here. They've been banned since the first of April, but they have not established a good testing program for 'milkshakes.' Now that doesn't make any sense."

"Milkshakes" are a mixture of drugs put into a horse before a race.

According to The Associated Press, a 2003 study conducted at Pennsylvania racetracks showed that 60 percent of horses tested were on steroids.

Testifying before Congress, Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg summed up thoroughbred racing's woes in two words: "Chemical warfare."

Van Berg is correct. The present rules permitting the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs have comprised the integrity of horse racing.

Why not a set of rules and regulations for all racing jurisdictions throughout the country? And why not offer harsh penalties for those breaking the rules?

The lack of conformity in the sport is a result of its lack of structure. Racing is essentially run by 38 sets of rules -- one for each state in which racing takes place.

n Servis touched on a number of other racing items, including the big question: What happened to Big Brown at the Belmont Stakes?

"That's a good question," Servis said. "The fact they haven't come up with an excuse yet is even more puzzling and has everyone bewildered. I was surprised. I think the problems go back to the foot injury, but you wonder exactly what did happen. The 3-year-old group is not that strong this year, most folks thought Big Brown was a good one and would win again. And I don't think (jockey Kent Desormeaux) ran a very good race. He was all over the racetrack in the early going and never did allow the horse to finish."

Keeping up with the Joneses

Smarty Jones made the news again this week -- or should we say an offspring of Smarty Jones made the news.

According to Mike Jensen of The Philadelphia Inquirer, a 2-year-old filly named La Equivocada finished sixth in a 5-furlong race Monday at Hipodromo Camarero -- a racetrack just outside San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The result aside, La Equivocada was first at something -- she is the first Smarty Jones baby to make it to the racetrack.

According to Jockey Club records, there are 88 offspring in the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner's first crop. In the coming months, they will start racing all over the country. Servis has a Smarty baby in his own barn.

Servis said a couple of trainers have told him they are excited about the prospects of the Smarty offspring in their barns. Several of them may be waiting until this summer's prestigious Saratoga meeting to run them for the first time, the trainer said.

La Equivocada was purchased for $30,000.

Churchill Downs fined

You have heard of Watergate and Spygate -- but how about "starting gate?"

According to an Associated Press story earlier this week, racing officials in Kentucky fined Churchill Downs Inc. for a rules violation at the starting gate of the May 3 Kentucky Derby.

The $15,000 penalty levied against the track by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority involves a track worker Churchill Downs hired to load Pyro into the starting gate.

Pyro, trained by Steve Asmussen, finished eighth in the race.

Because the job of loading temperamental racehorses into the gate is often a sensitive task, Kentucky's racing regulations have long held that track officials -- not trainers or jockeys -- make the assignments.

However, Asmussen had requested that assistant starter, Clinton Beck, be used, and he got his wish, which racing officials determined in their investigation violated the rules.

Larry Yanos covers horse racing for The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2311, or by e-mail at

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