Freestate Raceway will open its season tonight after a spate of seemingly negative publicity for the harness sport.
Last month, state racing judges at Rosecroft Raceway suspended a driver for his performance in a noisome race that produced a scandalously low triple payoff. Then Freestate made headlines by barring Walter Callahan, one of the state's leading drivers and trainers, from competing there this year.
To some cynics, these events might seem to confirm the view of some people that harness tracks are hotbeds of larceny. But even though I yield to no one in my paranoia about harness racing--Freestate President Frank DeFrancis acknowledges that I am "an extreme case"--I think these developments are very positive ones. Maryland's thoroughbred officials might learn a lot from their harness-racing counterparts.
The main trouble with harness racing, I have always thought, is that if a driver wants to lose a race deliberately, he can do it easily with a premature move or other poor tactics. Moreover, the conditions of harness races abet cheaters. While a thoroughbred trainer manipulating a cheap horse always has to worry that a rival trainer will see what he is doing and claim the animal, dishonest harness horsemen can operate with impunity in races for "nonwinners of $1,000 in their last seven starts" and the like.
Once I mentioned to a top harness official the fact that such conditioned races almost invite dishonesty. He promptly responded with a tirade about what hard-working, God-fearing citizens harness horsemen are. How, I wondered, could the industry combat its problems with a hide-your-head-in-the-sand attitude like that?
Racing officials who want to insure the integrity of their sport have to do precisely what those at Freestate and Rosecroft have done: they have to keep their eyes open and be willing to act. As flagrant as the triple race at Rosecroft was, there are plenty of racing officials who would have looked the other way. (Remember the equally outrageous St. Valentine's Day triple race at Bowie? The stewards there saw no evil until the FBI started to investigate.)
To police their sport, the local harness tracks are using a power that might give civil libertarians a few qualms, but which is undeniably effective: the right to exclude drivers and trainers arbitrarily. DeFrancis is a lawyer and knows he is on solid legal ground; he "excluded" other horsemen before Callahan.
The great danger inherent in this power, of course, is that tracks would use it for the wrong reasons; years ago, Waterford Park barred a rider whose only apparent offense was the fact that he was an activist in the Jockeys' Guild.
But if used for the right reasons, it must serve as a great deterrent to potential cheaters. And evidently the threat of exclusion is working in Maryland.
A professional bettor here, who is as cynical as anybody about harness drivers, told me recently, "Maryland is five times more honest than any other state where I see races."
Maryland's thoroughbred fans may be in the rare position of envying their harness counterparts. Most serious bettors and race-watchers at Pimlico this spring would concur that the number of form reversals has been extraordinary.
Yet the stewards see nothing; their idea of policing the sport is to hand out suspensions to jockeys they catch with a milligram of marijuana.
It's quite a switch. Once, harness racing was the weak link in the Maryland racing business.
But now, as DeFrancis said, the industry is "bursting at the seams"--strengthened by year-round racing, Sunday racing, bigger purses and its evident willingness to protect the interest of the betting public.