Racing wrongs finally threaten rich owners

Mar 29, 2005 9:00 AM

Warning to owners of racehorses: milkshakes can cause severe indigestion and a bleeding pocketbook.

Racehorse owners are not all, as often perceived, immensely wealthy, nor is the game, as often proclaimed and portrayed, the sport of kings.

There are a lot of commoners, guys and gals like you and me, good people and bad, princes and knaves, who own horses, either singly or in partnership. The latter is becoming the rule rather than the exception, given the cost of feeding, training, grooming and racing a horse these days, regardless of breed.

Harness racing — trotters and pacers — is more the sport of the common guy, because they can be bought cheaper and can win as much, on the basis of cost versus return, as thoroughbreds. They don’t get as much publicity, but they race far more frequently, once a week the usual schedule rather than once every month or so, as with their more regal cousins the runners.

But regardless of breed — and you might opt for quarter horse racing if you live in the southwest — owners have until now enjoyed what has amounted almost to an exemption from wrongdoing.

If, by choice or accident, they choose a knave rather than a knight to train their horses, and the nags run afoul of the rules, the owners almost always can walk away, switch trainers — either for better or for more of the same — and leave the offending trainer to take the heat.

Now, however, with milkshakes — the administration of bicarbonate of soda and only the trainer knows what else mixed in — gaining daily headlines from discovery of their use in the land of milk and honey (southern California) the people who run racing are coming to their senses.

They are talking about new rules of the road, or track, which place responsibility on owners as well as their trainers.

Ontario has been the toughest jurisdiction in North America and Kentucky, until now, the most permissive. Veteran Washington Post racing columnist Andy Beyer wrote a few years ago that you could use anything but dynamite in the Blue Grass.

That stinging rebuke, along with others, and a new racing authority appointed by Gov. Ernie Fletcher, is pushing Kentucky from last to first in the battle against wrongdoing.

A very savvy lady named Constance Whitfield (a lawyer and a good one whose husband Ed Whitfield is a U.S. Congressman), has teamed with a Harvard-educated harness horse breeder named Alan Leavitt to write new rules from their positions on the Kentucky Authority. Leavitt and his wife Meg run one of the nation’s best harness breeding operations.

They approach the problem of the free ride — and will solve it if they get their way — by suspending the horse along with the offending trainer, when rules are broken.

This hits hard at an owner’s bank account. A horse that cannot race not only cannot earn money, but he eats the same amount of hay and oats, incurs the same vet bills, and costs the same to keep and train as a horse that is able to venture forth and run for dough.

As you might expect, horsemen are balking at these rules, but happily the approach also is being adopted by a group with far wider implications.

The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, a group of 25 leading figures representing all segments of racing, also is considering uniform penalties to go along with uniform racing rules.

Both are urgently needed, not as much to rein in the small minority of knaves in the sport, but to smooth and level the playing field for those countless thousands who make their money honestly in horse racing, including the tens of thousands who bet on the game.

If owners now will have to consider the risk of sitting out a few hands for the misdeeds of trainers who play games, they hopefully will become a bit more careful in their choices as to whom they turn over their expensive toys.

Honest owners with honest trainers — and they make up the vast majority of those in horse racing, regardless of breed — should lead the cheers.