During the battle over the use of drugs at Maryland race tracks, people on both sides of the issue have been able to agree on one thing. The members of the state racing commission are shockingly ill-equipped to supervise a complex multimillion-dollar industry.
When the commission performed its latest flip-flop yesterday, permitting some use of the drug Lasix and postponing its ban on medications from Jan. 1 to March 15, it was not merely compromising or temporizing. In several ways, the five-man board seemed to be abdicating its authority.
The commissioners had moved to abolish all drugs because the prevailing political winds seemed to be blowing in that direction, not because they had made a serious study of the subject. They seemed uninterested and uncomprehending when experts testified before them on the properties of Butazolidin and Lasix. The commissioner who introduced the motion to ban the drugs couldn't even pronounce the names of either of them.
With their hard-headed attitude toward drugs, the commissioners at least seemed to have settled the controversy once and for all. But last week their hard-headedness stirred it up again.
When a trainer asked what would happen if a horse had a trace of Butazolidin in his urine specimen, Robert W. Furtick shot from the hip. He answered that the trainer ought to be suspended for a year -- if it were a first offense. For a second offense, three years. For a third offense, life.
This proposal was, to put it charitably, foolish. Traces of Bute can show up innocently in a horse's urine since thoroughbreds can still legally train with the drug. A trainer could sabotage a rival by throwing one Bute tablet into a horse's feed tub. And if the commission was going to crack down so harshly on the use of two rather benign drugs, what could it then do to a trainer who employed powerful narcotics like Sublimaze and Stadol?
Furtick's remarks were so threatening and inflammatory that they galvanized Maryland horsemen into action. Ordinarily you couldn't get two trainers to agree on what to have for lunch. But on Monday night 65 trainers voted to boycott, the entry box when Bowie opens Jan. 1.
The commission had to disown Furtick's injudicious comments somehow. But it did so in a way that appeared to be a craven capitulation to the horsemen.
The commission decided yesterday that it would issue no guidelines about penalties for drug use. That would be left in the hands of the track stewards.
Setting tough, uniform and fair rules for punishing drug violators would have been a legitimate function of the commission. It was necessary to deter the use of illegal drugs, which has sometimes reached epidemic proportions in Maryland. Without any such standards, the system will continue to work the way it always has: unfairly. If a small-time trainer gets caught in a violation, he'll get the book thrown at him. If a powerful trainer is nailed, he'll have his wrist slapped.
The commission's other decisions yesterday -- to allow some use of Lasix and to give the drug ban further study -- were reasonable ones, but ones that the board should have made in the first place.
The commission demonstrated unequivocally the principle upon which it operates. It responds to pressure. It banned drugs last month because of political pressure. It stayed the ban and weakened it yesterday because of the horsemen's pressure. At no time during the entire drug controversy has the commission acted on the basis of its own sound judgement, or for the good of racing, or for the public interest.