Horse racing feels the effects as drugs invade sports in America

May 29, 2007 4:41 AM

What horse players have known for years became more apparent than ever last week: their game has far better security and policing than major professional sports, and less hypocrisy.

As the cycling scandal spread and New York Yankee slugger Jason Giambi told USA Today that "he was wrong for doing that stuff," presumably talking about steroids, horse racing, both thoroughbred and harness, continued its vigilance. Both have wider testing, more severe penalties, longer suspensions, and in the case of the trotters a large number of detention or retention barns, where horses must report well in advance of racing and remain under scrutiny.

Giambi caught the fury of his master, George Steinbrenner — a horse owner of both breeds and still very much the man in full charge of the Yankees — who said Giambi "should have kept his mouth shut”¦the matter is in the hands of the baseball commissioner." His players may agree with that — Giambi quickly did — but others were less tolerant.

Baseball has long shown a reluctance to admit its problem, but the unrelenting press and a more meaningful investigation are bringing to light the depth of its drug problems. A locker room attendant who admitted providing drugs did not help the situation, and the irony of public apathy toward all this was put into sharp focus by New York Times sportswriter William C. Rhoden in a recent "Sports of the Times" column.

Rhoden wrote that "I find myself asking with greater frequency, how many fans truly care. That is, how many care enough to stay away?"

He noted that in the National Football League, "where there is no test for human growth hormones and players are big as buildings, attendance is soaring. Where is the outrage? There is none."

Part of the explanation for that is the low state of ethics and morality so widespread in America today, from white collar crime of horrendous magnitude to outright lying at the highest levels of government.

The business pages of American newspapers read like an edition of the old Police Gazette, with high ranking executives forced to resign because of everything from stealing from their shareholders to sharing the beds of their more attractive employees, and not always of the opposite gender.

This stuff ranges from the former governor of New Jersey, forced to resign, to Paul Wolfowitz, who after helping promote the war in Iraq became president of the World Bank. One of his first acts was to promote a young lady, who turned out to be his girlfriend, to a $500,000 a year job.

When this kind of behavior becomes commonplace, as it has, the public mind becomes dulled, or apathetic, toward wrongdoing. Rhoden, in his column, told of a study at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University — my old alma mater — where the dean concluded that team loyalties overcome ethical concerns.

"If someone’s a real baseball fan and they come from San Francisco, they really care that Bonds is theirs."

That’s a sad commentary on where we are today.

It is difficult to measure, but part of the declining fortunes of horse racing in this country is the departure of the heavy hitters — the whales of the sport — who have drifted away, not apathetic but weary of guessing who are the chemists in sports. In most cases they know, or think they do.

Beyond this concern, of course, is the rebate issue, where the big gamblers cannot afford to ignore the kickbacks from offshore operators who, with no bricks and mortar expenses, no purses to pay, and ludicrously low signal rates, can afford to be generous in rebating. That unquestionably is the prime motivation for leaving, but ethics and morality also plays a role.

I started this sermon lauding the vigilance of racing, and the game is vigilant. I must end it by saying that the chemists often are ahead in the constant race for new illegal weapons. The sophisticated compounded substances of today are in many cases very difficult to find, and cost huge sums of money to detect.

Some less sophisticated horsemen have gone so far as to use vodka and Viagra on their horses, and have been caught. There are, of course, pro athletes who are regular users of both. Whether either works for enhanced performance will have to rest on the testimony of others closer to the facts.