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Swift justice for drug abusers

Jun 22, 2004 4:51 AM

It is ironic, but not surprising, that the man who is trying to clean up illegal drug use by athletes is catching hell for doing it.

The press and the public do not like absolute power and autocracy, and they have been pounding Richard Pound, the president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, in columns and letters to editors. Mr. Pound run things from Canada, and runs them his own way, with an iron fist.

It may not be surprising that this disturbs newsmen and their readers, but it is not likely to do much good for the athletes in track and field who are caught in the web.

Sprinter Marion Jones and her world champion sprinting companion Tim Montgomery face uphill and very expensive battles getting to the Olympics this summer in Athens because, as Pound said last week, "We’re not dealing here with criminal offenses, and there has never been a criminal burden of proof."

Which means, essentially, that if the World Anti-Doping Agency says you’re out, you’re out, without much chance of successful appeal.

Along with Marion Jones’ predicament in being tied to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or Balco, which dispensed body building supplements to professional athletes of all stripes, and whose principals are under indictment for distributing the designer steroid THG, there is the sadder story of another ace sprinter, Kelli White, who admitted using the blood enhancer erythropoietin, better known as EPO, and is grounded for two years and busted, literally and figuratively.

EPO, of course, is a matter of concern in horse racing a well as human racing, but has different significance.

The big difference is that athletes take EPO and other synthetic or natural illegal substances voluntarily.

The horses have no say in the matter.

In my official life in horse racing, I have been fighting this battle for years and have been frustrated with the legal and technical problems and disgusted with owners who employ trainers with shady reputations, showing greater concern for money than for their horses. I have proposed that owners share penalties meted out to their trainers, or suffer loss of racing income, as one possible approach.

There is another and better solution, and last week it surfaced in thoroughbred racing.

Barry Irwin is one of the sport’s major owners, operating a highly successful stable called Team Valor.

He is a bitter foe of illegal medication, and last week one of his trainers, Ralph Nicks, was fined and suspended by the stewards of the New York Racing Association, which operates Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga Racetrack in that state. The fine and suspension was for injecting a Team Valor horse scheduled to race that afternoon, which is illegal in New York.

Barry Irwin, who maintains a zero-tolerance policy with regards to drugs, faced what he called "the most difficult business decision I’ve ever had to make." Ralph Nicks was more than an Irwin trainer. He also was a friend and regarded by Irwin as an outstanding horseman.

But Irvin made the decision, and fired Nicks.

Barry Irwin’s action will not end the illegal medication problem, or end acts that violate state regulations.

But they serve as a beacon for other owners, most of whom run major businesses of one sort or another. You do not own horses without having money, or a way of making it. It is not a poor man’s sport.

These men and women, who run successful businesses, know in the normal order of things what their key company officials do. Ken Lay can argue that he did not know what was happening at Enron, but few believe him. And there is no difference between knowing what your key employees are doing or knowing what your horse trainer is doing. If nothing else, reputation will tell you.

The province of Ontario is six furlongs ahead of any jurisdiction in the United States in meting out stiff punishment. It is suspending offending trainers for years, and fining them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That’s well and good, but there is another approach to the problem, and Barry Irwin used it last week. Other horse owners should follow suit.