The Maryland Racing Commission's decision to ban the use of all drugs at the state's thoroughbred tracks might help foster clean, formful racing. But the prohibition could just as easily usher in an era of hypocrisy and wide-spread illegal drugging.
The commission voted on Thursday to stop the use of Butazolidin and Lasix when Bowie opens Jan. 1. Although those medications are frequently abused, they are still quite benign compared with the countless illegal drugs that are readily available. Horsemen who testified at the commission hearing said, in essence: If we can't use Bute and Lasix, many of us will use something else.
That is surely true. So if the commission is serious about cleaning up Maryland racing, if its ban on drugs was more than a hollow public-relations gesture, it must take action to stop the anticipated use of illegal drugs.
These are some things the commission can do:
Improve the drug-testing procedures in Maryland. Clearly they are inadequate. Last year, the powerful drug Sublimaze was being widely used at tracks in the state and around the nation. The use stopped when chemists in other states found a test for the drug and detected it in many horses' urine specimens. But Maryland's lab never came up with a single Positive."
Freeze suspicious urine samples. Trainers and veterinarians can get away with drugging horses illegally because the pharmaceutical companies always stay a step or two ahead of the racing chemists. Trainers knew they could use Sublimaze with impunity because no test existed to detect it.
But when chemists in Florida found suspicious urine samples, they saved them and froze them. After a test for Sublimaze was finally developed, the chemists applied it retroactively to the frozen samples and found more than 20 violations. There is no more effective deterrent to illegal drug use. t
Throw the book at violators. Trainers who commit flagrant drug offenses often get little more than a wrist slap, or a 30-day suspension. The penalties ought to be so severe that a trainer knows he is jeopardizing his whole career if he breaks the rules.
Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that these things will be done, or that the abolition of drugs will make racing more honest. In New York, where Bute and Lasix have never been legal, the abuse of drugs seems much worse than it has been in Maryland. "There's a lot of hypocrisy in New York," said Anthony Camblin, executive director of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
Trainers who testified at the commission's hearing agreed fully. "You gentlemen have never been to New York," H. Steward Mitchell told the five-man board. "We'll go up there and sit in the barn area at Aqueduct during race time and you'll see all the vets going back and forth with two black bags in their hands."
King Letherbury said he had learned his lesson about New York's supposed purity when he claimed two horses off a prominent New York trainer. "One of them went right into some form of withdrawal," Leatherbury said. "The other one just lay down and died."
Public confidence in the sport is so low that New York bettors talk routinely about "juice horses" and Juice trainers" -- men who can acquire a new horse and miraculously improve him 20 lengths overnight.
But drug scandals never surface in New York. Many bettors believe that officials are sweeping scandals under the rug, that they are quite content just to maintain the appearance of probity.
Will Maryland embrace this sort of hypocrisy? That, of course, depends on the racing commission. The board took its action largely because public opinion had swung so strongly against drugs; its members may feel that by placating the public (and the politicians in Annapolis) they have done their job. But if the commission is truly serious about wanting to crack down o drugs in Maryland, then its work has just begun.