New York racing has been harboring a dirty little secret for many years.
Although it is one of the few states that bans the use of all medications on thoroughbreds, and despite the moral posturing of its racing officials, drugs are just as prevalent in New York as anywhere else.
At least, that is what most horsemen and horseplayers believe. When Alysheba came to run in the Belmont Stakes, and trainer Jack Van Berg was repeatedly asked about the rules that would prohibit his colt from using the medication Lasix, he hooted at the hypocrisy of New York's official position. If anything, bettors are even more cynical than trainers. They know that the performances of horses from certain stables routinely defy the laws of nature, and they refer matter-of-factly to certain horsemen as "juice trainers."
Remarkably, the suspected juice trainers are rarely caught and rarely punished. Skeptical observers have wondered if New York's testing procedures were unable to catch the cheaters, or whether New York Racing Association officials were sweeping offenses under the rug to prevent a scandal. But this week the drug issue came out into the open when Peter Ferriola, the second- leading trainer in New York this year, was caught with three drug "positives" in a single week.
What made this revelation so interesting was that it came at a time when Ferriola was in the midst of a phenomenal streak. New York bettors have seen it all before, when a trainer suddenly seems blessed by magic, when his horses give explosive performances one after another. The most amazing work by a trainer was that of Oscar Barrera, who for several years had the power to claim the most infirm or hapless animals and transform them instantly into world-beaters. Ferriola's recent feats didn't rival Barrera's but they were impressive enough.
A 3-year-old named Visible Force typified the Ferriola magic.
Visible Force never had been anything more than a fainthearted sprinter of moderate talent. In two starts at Belmont Park this fall, he had been beaten by margins of seven and 17 lengths. But when Aqueduct opened and the Ferriola magic was working, he won a six-furlong race by five lengths. A week later, Ferriola sent him a mile, and the gelding won after fighting head-and- head for the lead all the way.
This training feat was typical of Ferriola's performance. Since Aqueduct's opening Oct. 21, the trainer had started 31 horses and won with 16 of them. He looked as if he might be able to overtake Wayne Lukas as the state's top race-winning trainer. He did, at least until last week.
Thursday, the testing laboratory at Aqueduct found a Ferriola horse tested positive for Lasix. Friday, a test found Lasix in another urine specimen from a Ferriola horse. When the third "positive" showed up, the stewards ordered Ferriola's horses scratched from Saturday's races.
Pending an investigation, all his horses have been transferred to the care of another trainer.
"Something had to be done," steward John Joyce said, "and Pete has been very cooperative. We asked him how this could have happened, and he said that some of his horses had been training on Lasix."
(That would be permissible, as long as traces of the drug don't show up in postrace tests.) Ferriola repeated to the Daily Racing Form that the horses in question were bleeders who had been training with Lasix.
Other horsemen say it would rarely make sense to use Lasix for training if the horses can't run with it. But Lasix is known to mask the presence of other drugs in a horse's system. Joyce was asked if he was concerned about this factor.
"I don't know if I can answer that question and be fair," he said. "But you've got to recognize it."
Joyce conceded that he is baffled by many aspects of this case -- as are outside observers. If Lasix was being used in conjunction with an illegal stimulant, why couldn't New York's sophisticated testing laboratory find the other drug? And why did the Lasix show up weeks after Ferriola's hot streak had begun? If the trainer was doing something illegal, it is hard to believe he just started doing it a few days ago.
As is the case with most of the so-called "juice trainers" in New York, there are a lot more questions than answers.