Leaders of the horse racing industry were assembled in Washington the past two days and spent most of their time discussing the sport's "crisis in integrity."
They didn't come up with dramatic remedies for the fixing, drugging and ringer scandals that regularly tarnish thoroughbred racing. In fact, the annual conference of the American Horse Council gave indications that the game will face some new problems in the coming year.
Racing commissioners, track executives and horsemen offered some reasonable, although familiar, suggestions for combating larceny: tighter licensing procedures for owners, better drug-testing, elimination of conflicts of interest for racing officials.
But Paul Berube of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau hit upon the key issue when he said, "The most alarming fact which has been established in all our recent investigations is the willingness of so many licensed professionals in racing to accept bribe money in return for their losing effort. No sport outside of parimutuel horse racing has such a negative record. What we need to account for is why . . ."
I think there is a clear answer to Berube's question. There probably aren't many people who come into the racing game intending to be crooks; you don't often see apprentice jockeys stiffing their mounts.But racing stewards tolerate so much petty larceny that it is easy for jockeys and trainers to fall into bad habits.
Observant race-watchers will see, on almost any day, riders who seem to be applying a double hammerlock to their mounts. Students of handicapping will sometimes see form reversals so drastic that they defy all logic. Yet few stewards in America manage to perceive these things, let alone summon jockeys and trainers before them and ask for an explanation.
The stewards ought to be the first line of defense against larceny, and yet I can't name a track in America where they are doing this job properly. But this is the level on which racing has to combat its budding scandals; sweeping plans formulated by panels of industry leaders aren't going to do the job.
But there is another issue in racing -- the use of drugs -- that can be dealt with by fiat. Sen. Charles Marthias (D-Md.) appeared before the American Horse Council meeting on Monday to issue a warning that the federal government may step in to curtail the use of medications.
Mathias is considered a friend of the racing industry, but he said bluntly, "The federal government should intervene only as a last resort, but I suspect that is the kind of situation we now have in thoroughbred racing. The pressure is mounting on the subject. On Capitol Hill, there is a rising chorus of protests about the use or abuse of medications on racehorses. It is pretty clear to me that a consensus is forming that this is inhumane to the horses and unfair to the bettors.
"There was a trend toward reform, but it is running out of steam. One-third of the 30 racing states do not restrict antiinflammatory drugs, steroids or diuretics, and several states are backsliding."
Mathias' criminal law subcommittee can hold hearings on the bill sponsored by Sen. David Pryor and Rep. Bruce Vento that would impose tough federal penalties on drug use at racetracks. "I am very reluctant to call up the federal cavalry," Mathias said, "so I will delay hearings on this bill until after the first of the year to give the states an ample opportunity to pre-empt the need for federal regulation."
The racing industry seems unlikely to set its own house in order. The Horseman's Benevolent and Protective Association has fought and impaired many states' efforts to impose a ban on drugs. That organization's president, Don Johnston, doesn't perceive that the horsemen may have to sacrifice some of their own interests for the health of the industry. He told his audience on Monday that the interests of the horseman come first, and felt that the main problem facing the industry was that cheap, greedy track owners weren't doing enough for trainers.
Other racing officials knew where the HBPA's selfishness is going to lead. "It's going to be hard for any congressman to listen to hearings on the drugging of racehorses and not vote for federal intervention," said Earle Palmer Brown, president of Rosecroft Raceway. Such messy congressional hearing on drugs in racing will make the industry's current image problems seem mild, indeed.