Bob Roesler, sports editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, had just walked into the press box of the Fair Grounds Race Track this winter when a track employe stopped him and said, "They want to see you downstairs."
Roesler was ushered into an office where the track's president, Joseph P. Dorignac; its lawyer, Louis Roussel III, and its chief of security were waiting for him.
Dorignac instructed the security chief: "Tell Mr. Roesler that he is no longer welcome in the press box."
The journalist didn't need to ask the reason. "I'll be delighted to get out of your press box," he said. Then he handed the track president his press pass and suggested what he might do with it.
Roesler's offense had been to write accurately about the local racing scene; in New Orleans, this is no innocuous task. It hasn't been since Alex Harthill was hired in 1979 as a special assistant to the president of the track. Making Harthill a racing official is a bit like appointing Willie Sutton a bank executive.
Harthill was the veterinarian who was fined for treating Dancer's Image with an illegal drug that caused his disqualification in the Kentucky Derby. He has been arrested and charged with attempted bribery of a public official -- a racing chemist (the case ended in a hung jury) - and for smuggling drugs across the Canadian border (another fine).
Roesler knew this but said, "That was in the past. Roussel brought Harthill in to recruit high-powered stables for the Fair Grounds, and I felt that if he could use his connections to get good horses, fine. But I had my eyes open."
Roesler saw, and wrote about, an occasion when Harthill stationed himself by the claim box to see if anyone was going to claim a horse trained by Joey Dorignac, the track president's son. When a claim went in, Harthill dropped in a claim, too, trying to protect the horse, even though he wasn't authorized to do so.
Roesler knew, and wrote, that Harthill was practicing as a vet on the Fair Grounds backstretch, even though he didn't have a Louisians license. "When I put a little heat on," the columnist said, "he took the Louisiana veterinary exam and flunked it. In the next session of the legislature, somebody tacked on a rider to a bill to license him. I brought that to the public eye."
But the big storm erupted this winter when the state testing lab detected "positives" for Butazolidin in several horses at the Fair Grounds. One was owned by Roussel and treated by Harthill; another was trained by Bud Delp, whom Harthill had recruited to the Fair Grounds.
Roesler covered the stewards' hearing on the Roussel case and found it most peculiar. "Roussel had the right to have as many experts as possible," he said, "and he came in with a battery of lawyers and big guns. The stewards had nobody. And they decided that the quantity of Bute was not enough to alter the horses' performance.
"Several members of the racing commission wanted the case brought up again. They voted, 3-3, on whether to reopen it and the chairman, A.M. Stall, broke the tie and voted not to reopen it."
Stall, Roesler pointed out, races a big stable at the Fair Grounds, too. And the tract treats him well. A couple of years ago, a 3-year-old filly he owns won the Fair Grounds Oaks. The next year, the track changed the conditions of the race, making it for 4-year-olds, enabling Stall's filly to run in it again.
With Stall running horses, Roussel running horses, Dorignac's son training horses and Harthill medicating horses, Roesler pointed out that there might be some wee conflict-of-interest problems at the Fair Grounds. But because the track officials didn't want to hear this, Roesler spent the remainder of the season watching from the grandstand.