When three of Peter Ferriola's horses were found to have been treated with illegal drugs last month, the trainer figured to become the Ivan Boesky of New York racing.
Ferriola was the top race-winning trainer in the state, but he was only one of several successful trainers who were popularly suspected of using drugs on their horses. Because those who administer drugs usually manage to stay one step ahead of the chemists who try to detect them, few have been caught.
But Ferriola had been nabbed with three "positives" in a matter of a few days. This was the chance for New York officials to administer a punishment that would have had a chilling deterrent effect on others -- the way Boesky's jail sentence will make other Wall Street wise guys think twice about insider trading.
Instead, the opposite has happened. The Ferriola case hasn't deterred anything. During the past few weeks, the form at Aqueduct has gone crazy -- with stunning wakeups and form reversals that indicate many horses may be getting more than hay, oats and water.
For his three violations, Ferriola had his wrist slapped with a 120-day suspension (and an implicit promise the penalty would be reduced to 90 days if he didn't appeal). Ferriola did appeal, and so he has stayed in action at least until his hearing Dec. 30.
When the suspension does take effect, it will amount to a nice vacation during which the trainer can spend some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars his horses have been winning. Given the potential rewards and risks, what trainer wouldn't take a chance if he had access to a potent, hard-to-detect stimulant?
Ferriola certainly didn't go into any sort of hibernation after the decision in his case was announced. Shortly thereafter he sent out a horse named Fugie to win a claiming race by 11 lengths and run six furlongs in 1:08 flat -- shattering Aqueduct's track record.
In the last few weeks, wakeups like that one have become commonplace in New York. Trainer Gasper Moschera took Classical Ballad from a $25,000 claiming race he had lost by 16 lengths and sent him out to win a $45,000 claimer in his next start. Ferriola claimed Placid Waters out of a $32,000 race he had lost by 17 lengths and promptly won a $50,000 claiming race the next week. Askrano, one for 25 this year, woke up to win by nearly five lengths for trainer Joe Aquilino. Flippant, who had finished out of the money nine straight times, woke up to win at 22 to 1. Then another Aquilino horse came back with a "positive" for an illegal drug -- and the trainer took a 45-day suspension. Ferriola's veteran claiming horse Sidi Bou Said, who never had been anything special in a 64-race career, gave an explosive performance that left speed handicappers looking at their charts in disbelief. Sidi Bou Said's speed figure in winning the $30,000 claiming event was just about the same as Alysheba and Ferdinand had earned in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic.Sidi Bou Said wasn't good enough to win his next start, however. Oscar Barrera had claimed a horse named Sylson, brought him back three days later and beat Sidi Bou Said by four lengths. His time, too, would have been competitive in the Breeders' Cup.
Handicapping horses is the ultimate test of intelligence and judgment; it is the greatest of gambling games for this reason. But in New York this winter, it is degenerating into a guessing game. The blame lies less with the suspected cheaters than with racing officials who don't crack down on wrongdoing when they have a chance.