One day at Saratoga in 1974, after the last race of the after noon had been run, a man in the first row grandstand lowered his binoculars, turned toward the dispersing crowd and shrieked, "Doesn't anybody see what's going on here?"
His howl of rage drifted unnoticed up to the rafters of the ancient grandstand. Most people who heard his cry dismissed it as the raving of a typical disgruntled loser.
I did not dismiss the observation of Charlie the Pro, however, because I know he is probably the best horseplayer in America, and almost certainly the most astute race-watcher. He had just watched a jockey put a favorite under a stranglehold -- losiing deliberately. It was not the first act of larceny he had witnessed at Saratoga.
Charlie felt no need for a vindication of his opinion, but he got it anyway, during the recent trial of Con Errico. The ex-jockey was found guilty of fixing races at that very place and time -- Saratoga, 1974. Charlie hadn't been paranoid; he had been right.
Four years later I expereinced the same sense of impotent rage that Charlie had felt at Saratoga. At Pimlico in 1978 I saw horses waking up and winning in ways that defied all logic. A handful of trainers were suddenly performing miracles on a regular basis. There was one possible explanation for the phenomenon: drugs.
I shouted and wrote this frequently, but my tirades elicited only one quasiofficial reaction. A race track executive asked, "Having a bad season, Andy?"
Eventually I, too, learned that I had been right. The racing world was soon buzzing about a powerful new narcotic, Sublimaze, that was undetectable by any known testing procedure. The illicit use of this drug was responsible for the crazy form reversals at Pimlico and tracks across the country. When a test for the drug finally was developed, the form reversals ended.
Horseplayers' perception of corruption in the sport is a lot different from that of racing officials and the public at large. Often it is more acute.
Most people think fixes, druggings and other forms of larceny are nearly invisible, as hard to detect as well-executed bank embezzlement. So they wonder if the race-fixing activities of Tony Ciulla and Errico are merely the tip of an iceberg.
Horseplayers know that most race track larceny is very visible -- often as blatant as a mugging on the street. When jockeys hold horses they do so in broad daylight. When races are fixed, the odds and betting patterns almost always will reflect it.
Since we bettors are the intended victims, we have to keep alert to the possibility of larceny. The sharp horseplayers I associate with in Maryland, New York and Florida probably could assess the extent of dishonesty in racing better than most officials of the sport.
How corrupt is the game?
At this time, it is not nearly as corrupt as most people think.
Fixed races, of the sort orchestrated by Ciulla and Errico, probably are rare. Such fixes inevitably give off an odor that calls attention to them.
So many people have to perform so many overt, illegal acts to fix races that they inevitably will be detected. Chances are Cuilla and Errico were the principal race-fixers in America, not the mere tip of an iceberg.
The use of illegal drugs is a much more pervasive problem than race fixing, but the extent of the problem varies from time to time. There was an epidemic of drug abuse in the early 1970s when Lasix came into vogue, and again when Sublimaze was discovered. At present, there does not seem to be a hot new undetectable drug. But there surely will be one soon.
The amount of corruption in racing is, as the sport's apologists say, probably no worse than that in most other activities where money is involved.
What differentiates racing from these other activities is the way the sport polices itself. Or fails to police itself.Racing officials across America seem willing to ignore the most blatant evidence of larceny. And their tolerance encourages further corruption.
That is why Charlie howled in rage when he watched jockeys holding favorites at Saratoga, and why I sank into depression when I saw horses being hopped at Pimlico. What was maddening was not the larceny, but the knowledge that no racing official was seeing what we were seeing, let alone trying to do something about it.