Maryland racing has been making headlines this week, and whenever that happens it means bad news. In two seemingly unrelated developments:
* Officials were investigating a case in which a $12,500 horse, Dr. Peatoppy, ran in $4,000 claiming races under the name Sun Dandy.
* The Maryland legislature voted to raise the "take" on win, place and show wagering from 15 to 17 percent, thus transferring two cents of every dollar bet from the pockets of horseplayers into the coffers of track owners.
The coincidence of these events is revealing, for they seem to summarize the philosophy that governs thoroughbred racing in the state: take everything possible from the betting public, and do as little as possible for them in return.
Readers might have been titillated by the use of the word "ringer" in some headlines to describe the substitution of Dr. Peatoppy for Sun Dandy, suggesting that this incident might have been similar to the ringer scandal that rocked New York a few years ago. But while the events in New York were permeated with larcenous intent, even the most ardent conspiracy theorist would be hard-pressed to find evidence of chicanery at Bowie.
Dr. Peatoppy and Sun Dandy had been sent from New England to trainer Raymond Stifano; he said that each colt had a name tag on his halter, and that the name tags proved to be reversed. The first time he ran the expensive horse under the name of the cheaper horse, the animal went off at odds of 99 to 1 and finished third. If this were a betting coup, Stifano was betting awfully timidly.
And if Stifano had known the true identity of the horses, he surely would not have kept running Dr. Peatoppy under the false name while risking exposure. Once the colt had shown his form with that third-place finish, the betting public knew as much about his capabilities as the trainer did.
What happened at Bowie was not a sinister betting coup; it was something more distressing. Dr. Peatoppy and Sun Dandy didn't resemble each other and, of course, they had different lip tattoos, which are the official means of identifying thoroughbreds. There is a horse identifier on the track's payroll, but nothing was noticed on the three occasions that Sun Dandy ran. The mixup wasn't discovered until a substitute identifier was working at Pimlico.
It would be comforting to view this as an isolated occurrence, an instance of laziness by one minor race track functionary, except that it occurred within a racing industry that habitually disregards the interests of the betting public.
The Dr. Peabody-Sun Dandy case must make Maryland horseplayers wonder where else their interests are going unprotected. If officials cannot manage to distinguish a dark brown horse from a bay horse, can we believe that they are properly doing the difficult job of detecting illegal drugs?
If disregard of the public is a frequent sin of omission by the state's racing authorities, it was a sin of commission by the state legislature this week. The vote to increase the "take" from the parimutuel dollar was the typical short-sighted response to financial woes within the industry. It makes as much economic sense as a retail business raising its prices to offset declining sales.
The legislators think this tax is an invisible one that bettors won't feel. But when a high takeout grinds down a horseplayer's bankroll until he can't go to the track at all, both he and the track feel it painfully. More enlightened segments of the racing industry have come to believe that reducing the takeout is a key to the industry's long-term health. But enlightenment isn't easy to find in Maryland.