Lots of information, not enough ethics in racing

Apr 19, 2005 9:48 AM

As Ollie would say to Stan, "This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into."

Racing keeps shooting itself in the foot and the current chapter in its sordid book reads like pure fiction. Here’s the plot: a champion filly is sneaked out of the track by her owner in the middle of the night, put on a van and driven nearly one hour to an equine hospital for treatment of a blood ailment so she could be ready for a big race five days later.

I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time, but what was owner Marty Wygod thinking? What began like James Bond ended up like The Pink Panther.

Whatever it was, he’ll have some ”˜splaining to do, because the California Horse Racing Board has filed complaints against Wygod, a man who has been involved in racing since he was a teenager and at 62 is now one of racing’s most prominent owners and breeders. He also is a member of the August Jockey Club and a director of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

The CHRB also filed against trainer Julio Canani and Dean Kerkhoff, the driver of the van for a company known as Racehorse Transport, after determining that Sweet Catomine, the 2-year-old filly champion of 2004 owned by Wygod and his wife, Pam, and formerly trained by Canani, was falsely identified to a stable gate guard as a pony when she left Santa Anita via van at 3:15 a.m. on April 4 and again when she returned to the track the next night.

This is not uncommon. Countless horses come and go from the track identified only by a paper form. It’s trust system. Guards at the gate don’t inspect the horses by lip tattoo.

Administrative hearings for Wygod, Canani and Kerkhoff were set for Saturday with stewards Pete Pedersen, Tom Ward and Dennis Nevin at Hollywood Park. But the hearings were re-scheduled for Sunday, May 1.

Wygod, a native New Yorker and the son of an accountant in Brooklyn where he went to school with Bobby Frankel, had already created a firestorm with his comments after Sweet Catomine finished fifth as the even-money favorite in the Santa Anita Derby on April 9.

Excerpts from Wygod after the Santa Anita Derby follow: "I was thinking of scratching her after she bled out of her last work (Sunday, April 3). We sent her to Alamo Pintado (Equine Medical Center in Los Olivos, near Santa Barbara, and not far from the Wygods’ 170-acre River Edge Farm in Buellton) and treated her and brought her back. She had a little feet (foot problem) on Wednesday. In my heart I felt not to run but yesterday we made up our mind."

Wygod knew all this when he addressed the media at a post position draw breakfast Wednesday, April 6, which was open to the public. But he chose not to divulge any of that information, leading one and all to believe Sweet Catomine would be in peak form for her first meeting against males.

What transpired was unethical and hits racing where it hurts most, in the pocket book. Loss of integrity results in loss of mutuel handle. Without integrity, horse players might as well play slot machines. Not that racing should have a completely open agenda, even in today’s world of overbearing political-correctness. Too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.

"There’d be no end to it if all information were made public," said Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, one of racing’s most moral, accessible and cooperative horsemen. "Every day there’s something wrong with a horse. It’s part of training horses. Most of the things we try don’t work, and 99 percent of the time we’re just fishing. I could give information about my horses but I think it would just jumble things, make things too confusing. There’s too much data now. If you tried to reveal everything you’d have such a big program you couldn’t carry it. All this other stuff is better ignored. That’d be my advice."

Equipment alterations can include rings bits, tongue ties, figure-eights, shoes, shadow rolls, you name it, but to Mandella, only two items are significant.

"Blinkers and Lasix," he said. "Blinkers really change a horse. It helps them focus or corrects them from bearing out, so it’s important to know if blinkers are added or removed. I don’t think Lasix masks other (illegal) medications. Lasix is legal so it will be used and the reason is, if you run a horse without it, your owners second-guess you. All studies show that 80 percent of horses bleed. Now we’re talking about livable bleeding, nothing you’d ever see from their nostrils. Probably one percent bleed through the nose. We know by endoscope examinations that bleeding is part of the game, so if Lasix is legal, it’s best to use it."

Wygod, meanwhile, could one day regret his clandestine caper, even though he may have had the best intentions. He might be second-guessing his judgement and repeating his surname under his breath: "Why, God?" "Why, God?" "Why, God?"

THE HOMESTRETCH: Add News You Can Bet On, this from the Dec. 21 issue of Gaming Today: "If (Pat) Valenzuela comes back he’ll be leading rider," predicted trainer David Bernstein. "The fans, the owners and trainers all love the guy." Despite missing more than a month due to suspensions and out of town riding commitments, Valenzuela won the Santa Anita title going away.

”¡ Professional clocker Gary Young on Bellamy Road’s 17½-length romp in the Wood Memorial: "He could have run backwards and beat the horses that ran in the Santa Anita Derby. He’s one of the best-moving horses I’ve seen in years. Unless he hurts himself or unless he bounces, as they say, if he runs the race he ran in the Wood in the Kentucky Derby, he’ll win by five lengths. Barring anything totally unforeseen, if he runs in the Derby like he ran in the Wood, good luck to everyone else."