From the mailbag at the Maryland State Racing Commission in the weeks following the disallowed foul claim in last month's Preakness:

"Racing is on thin ice. You had better clean up."

Silver Spring.

"All people involved in horse racing -- from the top of the ladder to the bottom rung -- are sweating under the blare of a national spotlight focused on race fixing"

New York.

"There is a big enough cloud forming over thoroughbred racing as it is, with the horror story of the drugging of these unfortunate colts so they are forced to run on inflamed tendons and factured ankles"


"My wife says all professional sports are fixed, and this proves it".


To racing fans across the country, the Preakness seemed to provide further evidence of bad officiating, injustice, and maybe corruption. People who watched the Peakness believed the worst because public confidence already was at its ebb. The sport is facing perhaps its greatest crisis ever.

In a massive federal investigation that has yet to run its course, charges have alleged hundreds of fixed races at tracks up and down the east coast through the midwest. Dozens have been substantiated with convictions.

Simultaneously, state racing commissions throughout the nation are wrestling to close the Pandora's Box they opened in the early 1970s when they approved controlled medication for racehorses.

What they got instead was drugging of horses on an unprecedented scale. Under pressure from a variety of fronts, commissions now are beginning to clamp down on drug use. But the pharmaceutical industry is so sophisticated that new drugs are coming on the market faster than racing chemists can develop tests for them.

And there are indications that racing, the nation's No. 1 spectator sport for more than a quarter century, may be declining in popularity.

For the record, the Preakness controversy developed when Jacinto Vasquez, jockey on runner-up Genuine Risk, claimed that Angel Cordero Jr., aboard winner Codex, interfered with his horse, forcing her to run wide on the final turn. Risk was bidding for the lead. Vasquez also said Cordero bumped his filly and hit her with his whip.

After painstaking detailed testimony and hours upon hours of reviewing films, the Thoroughbred Board of Maryland's Racing Commission decided it was strictly a judgement call whether or not there was a foul. It affirmed the track stewards' decision disallowing the claim.

What the Thoroughbred Board could not do was dispel the deep-seated cynicism with which many fans regard racing.

It may be that the suspicion of larcency has been part of horse racing since men first learned to ride horses. In fact, The Wall Street Journal suggested recently that if a fixed race were advertised in advance, with only the name of the winner withheld, fans would flock in record numbers to the track to bet on the outcome.

What is unprecedented about the current investigation is the degree of documented race fixing.

In the last year, the Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force has helped convict 31 jockeys, trainers, owners, bookmakers and organized crime figures on charges relating to race fixing.

Another 12 are waiting trial, nine have been acquitted, and the number of fixed races is said to be "in the hundreds."

Never, says Paul Coffey, deputy chief of the Organized Crime Section at Justice, "has there been any series of prosecutions of this magnitude in the history of sports."

The investigations have brought hundreds of witnesses, ranging from owners to stewards to veterinarians to jockeys, before the grand juries.

Moreover, prosecutors say, the industry itself has shown little inclination to clean up its own act. One official complained, "First they'll say, 'show us proof there's anything wrong.' Then, after a conviction, they take the attitude that the problem's been solved and the guilty punished."

"Racing commissions are appointed to see that the cash flow keeps coming in to the states, not to run a clean show," says the Humane Society's Marc Paulhus.

Since the early 1970s, the drug controversy has intensified, and it appears to be peaking this year. Critics of the industry contend that horses routinely are given stimulants and depressants, many of them undetectable in laboratories. Sore and lame horses, they argue, are given painkillers so they can run at top speed when they should recuperating.

"Racing's drugging policy could spell doom for the sport," thundered Rep. Bruce F. Vento (D-Minn.) last month on the floor of the House of Representatives.

"The use of drugs may benefit a few, but it certainly casts a shadow over the integrity of the sport and endangers the life and well-being of both the jockey and the animal."

The author of a bill calling for federal regulation of horse medications, Vento contends drugs are eroding public confidence in racing.

As far back as 1974, he told colleagues in the House, a survey by the National Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling reflected "the lack of faith that bettors have in the integrity of racing. In mean ratings for the survey, all bettors stated their conviction that races were fixed pretty often."

The leading American spectator sport for the last 28 years, horse racing last year drew 77,679,945 fans who bet more than $6 billion at the tracks. But the figure was down by more than a million fans from 1978, and there are other ominous omens.

For one thing, the average track patron is relatively old -- between 45 and 50.The industry is not attracting younger fans as it must if it is to maintain its popularity. Clearly, the furror over fixing and drugs isn't helping.

"We certainly don't enjoy the news accounts which have appeared," says Bill Christine, director of the Thoroughbred Racing Association, which represents most of the nation's major tracks.

"We all want racing to have a high image."

Adds Joseph Kellman of the Illinois Racing Commission: "If you can restore credibility with the public, you might be able to bring racing back where it ought to be.

"If you polled race track goers as to what percentage of them think horse racing is legitimate, I'd be surprised if 80 to 90 percent of them did not say it was illegitimate.

"Young people who might be interested in racing head the papers and they read about drugs and fixed races. Do you think this encourages them to come out to the track? It's bad enough to lose your money legitimately. The public is just tired of being screwed."

The current round of fixing prosecutions received its major impetus from Tony Ciulla, convicted of fixing races in 1975 and sentenced to four to six years in prison. While in prison, Ciulla made a deal with federal prosecutors. He testified at grand jury investigations and fixing trials in return for immunity from prosecution, relocation by the U.S. Marshal Service and a new idenity as a member of the Federal Witness Program.

Ciulla admitted fixing hundreds of races at 39 tracks around the country before his involuntary retirement in 1975. Although he has been inactive since, his shadow spreads across the industry.

"You have this situation," said one prosecutor, "where Ciulla and his associates were able to fix hundreds of races with the greatest of ease between 1973 and 1975. It's naive not to assume that it's still going on."

Moreover, the investigations stemming from the Ciulla information are continuing. In testimony last month before a New York jury, jockey Jose Amy mentioned 10 of the nation's leading jockeys and former jockeys in connection with alleged race fixing schemes although he was not specific about times or places.

Among them were Vasquez (winner of the Kentucky Derby this year on Genuine Risk), Cordero and Jorge Velasquez, a top stakes-winning rider. All have denied any connection with race fixing.

Amy, who testified with a grant of immunity from prosecution, was a witness at the trial of Con Errico, a former jockey. Errico was found guilty of bribing riders in a scheme to fix nine races at Aqueduct and Saratoga in 1974 and 1975.

According to Justice Department files, the race-fixing probes include indictments handed down in Detroit, Harrisburg and Boston, in addition to New York. They charge race fixing at 10 tracks.

The payoffs from these fixes were often enormous. Ciulla said that on Aug. 16, 1973 he made $35,000 betting on a fixed race in Detroit. A month later he won $65,000 on one race. In neither case do the amounts reflect winnings from offtrack bookmakers.

One of Ciulla's favorite schemes was to fix the favorite horses, then place exacta or trifecta bets on all remaining combinations.

"They did everything," said Coffey, citing testimony at the trials. They paid jockeys to hold their horses. They hit their horses with drugs to make them run fast."

At least once, according to testimony, a drugging scheme backfired and a whole race had to be canceled.

In that incident, also in Detroit, four horses were drugged. One died and the other three collapsed in their stalls before post time.

For offtrack bookies reluctant to pay off on fixed races, Ciulla enlisted the aid of organized crime "enforcers" to make collections.

At the height of the operation, Ciulla's crew of intermediaries and runners was said to have been so large that he spent $6,000 a week for hotel rooms, food, liquor, telephone calls and travel.

Despite Ciulla's revelations, there are still those in the industry who argue that the claims of race fixing are exaggerated and that the industry is getting a bum rap.

"Sure, the black eyes that we get now nd then always hurt," says Robert Furtick, a member of the Maryland Thoroughbred Board. "But we're no worse than the auto industry. Look at all the cars they have to recall.

Harvey Furgatch of the California Horse Racing Board says: "I do not believe the horse racing industry has any more nonsense going on than most other industries, and that includes banking, business, elected officials, meat packing, oil . . . .

"I dare say there are more students cheating their way through college than there are people cheating in the horseracing business."