Let's Follow in Cycling's Tracks
DEL MAR, Calif. People who care about thoroughbred racing may look with interest on the travails of professional cycling and the disgrace of Floyd Landis, who will almost certainly be disqualified from his victory in the Tour de France.
The two sports have much in common. Both are plagued by the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Both are being spoiled by public cynicism; fans suspect that any brilliant or extraordinary achievement might be the result of cheating. Whenever horses start improving dramatically for a particular trainer, bettors say, "He's got the juice." And when Lance Armstrong recovered from cancer to win the Tour seven straight times, the French jeered him because they thought he was a doper.
These happen to be the two sports that I love the most. I watched the Tour every day for three weeks and cheered for Landis; I felt betrayed when he was exposed as a cheat who, according to test results, had won with an illegal boost of testosterone. Despite the fact that professional cycling is tarnished by scandal, I believe that the thoroughbred industry should emulate the way cycling has confronted the drug issue.
The International Cycling Union (UCI), the sport's governing body, is making a serious effort to confront illegal drug use and punish cheaters. Horse racing tends to sweep its problems under the rug.
If the winner of one of America's important horse races came back with a positive drug test, I would say with confidence that the offense would never be made public. Racing fans have long suspected that many offenses are dealt with quietly, behind the scenes, to avoid a public scandal. Some of those suspicions were confirmed by a 2004 report by Blood-Horse Magazine on the California Horse Racing Board. When horses of prominent trainers tested positive for illegal drugs, the board handled the cases privately, administering fines that often amounted to a slap on the wrist and never suspended an offender. Racing's regulators seem more concerned about avoiding bad publicity than exposing cheaters. The UCI was willing to endure the ultimate in bad publicity. Disqualifying the Tour de France winner threatens to alienate television networks worldwide that cover the event as well as companies that sponsor the teams. The ruling body of cycling is willing to accept the consequences of a public scandal in order to make a statement: We won't tolerate cheating.
The UCI metes out penalties that are meaningful. A doping violation brings a two-year suspension that seriously disrupts the career of any cyclist. At 30, Landis would be effectively finished in the sport.
His punishment is a marked contrast to the laughable penalties handed out to trainers whose horses are caught with positive drug tests. New York's dominant trainer, Rick Dutrow, was caught with two drug violations and received a 120-day suspension last year; it was reduced to 60 days. In his absence, his horses ran under the name of an assistant; there was nothing to prevent Dutrow from supervising the operation by phone. His stable's operation never missed a beat.
If the penalties in racing are inadequate, they are slow, too, with cases getting bogged down in endless appeals. A horse trained by Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel tested positive for morphine in a stakes race in June 2000, and the case was in limbo until the California Horse Racing Board dismissed it last week -- six years later. Cycling has found a way to speed up justice: Don't wait for a court ruling; throw the offenders out. On the eve of this year's Tour, some of cycling's biggest stars, including pre-race favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, were linked to a Spanish laboratory that engaged in blood doping and other illegal practices. Nobody waited for the case to wend through the courts. Directors of all the teams in the Tour agreed to remove the tainted riders from their lineups.
Although thoroughbred racing has no central governing body like the UCI, one segment of the industry does have the power to act unilaterally and get rid of undesirables. Racetrack owners have the unquestionable right to deny stall space to any trainer. They can do so for any reason -- and they ought to do it if a trainer is proved to be a cheater. They just need the courage to act as the team directors in the Tour did. While horse racing clearly needs better supervision, better testing and tougher penalties, its biggest weakness in the war on drugs is an intangible factor -- something that has been underscored by the Tour de France scandal. When a second test confirmed the presence of illegal testosterone in Landis, his Phonak team immediately fired him. The director of the Tour denounced him, saying, "He has soiled the yellow jersey." The media castigated him as a cheater who had disgraced himself and his sport.
But in horse racing, the use of illegal drugs brings no opprobrium, no shame. Steve Asmussen, the nation's top race-winning trainer in 2004 and 2005, was recently suspended for six months by Louisiana authorities after one of his horses tested positive for mepivacaine, a local anesthetic that could be used to block pain in an animal's leg. Asmussen faces another six-month suspension for a violation in New Mexico. Reports in the media described the offense as if it were a technicality or an accident and not a case of cheating. The same was true with Dutrow's violations last year.
Asmussen's powerful stable continues to operate under the name of his assistant, Scott Blasi, at major tacks across the country, including Saratoga. Yet no track executives question the presence of stand-ins for rule-breakers such as Asmussen and Dutrow. (In racing, we don't use the word "cheater.") Most owners have continued to support these trainers, feeling no stigma of being associated with them. There is only one way that horse racing can prove that it is serious about stopping the use of illegal drugs. When the sport catches a high-profile trainer engaging in a blatantly illegal practice, it should throw the book at him, run him out of the sport and castigate him as a cheater and a disgrace. What horse racing needs, in short, is its own Floyd Landis.