In an era when horse racing appears to be plagued by illegal drug use, when trainers regularly accomplish feats that defy logic, when bettors routinely factor "juice" into their handicapping, one event in the sport remains free of scandal and suspicion.
Before the 21st Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships are run at Lone Star Park Saturday, trainers, horses and veterinarians will be subjected to scrutiny without parallel in America racing. The Breeders' Cup organization has the resources (and the will) to do what individual racetracks cannot.
And yet, ironically, the integrity of the event produces even more cynicism among America's already cynical racing fans. When miracle-working trainers send top horses to the Breeders' Cup, and those horses run poorly, fans wonder if the legitimacy of their feats on the other 364 days of the year was tainted.
Of course, every racing jurisdiction tests horses for illegal drugs, but cheaters always manage to stay a few steps ahead of the chemists. So the most effective way to deter cheating is through close surveillance. The Breeders' Cup's security program grew out of its efforts to address a different problem. In the early 1990s, its races were tarnished by conspicuous breakdowns of horses -- notably the horrific death of the celebrated filly Go for Wand. Starting in 1993, the organization assembled a team of veterinarians from major racing jurisdictions to inspect all the horses as they trained. These vets, savvy about the realities of the modern game, began consulting with stewards, racing commissioners and security officials at the tracks that host the event, and a system evolved.
A week before the Breeders' Cup, security personnel are on duty at the barns housing the horses. And they know what they're doing. "The individuals in charge of security are well informed," said Pam Blatz-Murff, senior vice president of operations for the Breeders' Cup. "They're not just hired by a security firm. They're horse-conscious."
In the 24 hours before post time, the security guards monitor the movement of anyone who goes into the stall of any horse entered on the card -- the supporting races as well as the championship events. When a vet enters a stall, he has to register and he is observed while he is with a horse. If he administers an injection, the security personnel have authority -- granted by the racing commission -- to confiscate the syringe so the contents can be tested.
There was one loophole in this system, and in 1999 it made headlines. James Bond, who trained Behrens, the favorite in the Classic, and Val's Prince, the top American contender in the Turf, declared that he would not stable his horses at Gulfstream Park. He would van the horses from a training center 100 miles north of the track so that they would arrive shortly before their races. A rival trainer, Michael Dickinson, was so suspicious of the motive behind this plan that he hired a private investigator to follow the van carrying the horses.
When the story broke, with a track news release saying the purpose of the surveillance was to "observe any improper pre-race administrations," many people thought the idiosyncratic Dickinson had lost his mind. But after both the Bond horses ran dismally, suspicious minds wondered if the surveillance had something to do with it. And the Breeders' Cup subsequently adopted a rule requiring every horse to be on the grounds the day before the race. Certainly, racetrack people are a little paranoid about drugs. As Bond observed in the aftermath of the Behrens flap, "Any time you do good, people say, 'He's using something.' "
But it is hard to suppress suspicions when trainers enjoy extraordinary success throughout the year but flop in the Breeders' Cup. And it happens that the nation's two leading trainers of stakes horses have dismal Breeders' Cup records. Todd Pletcher's powerful stable dominates almost every major track in the East, yet his career record in the Breeders' Cup is 0 for 12. However, most of his entrants didn't figure strongly -- until this year, when he will saddle at least three solid contenders. So maybe his winless record will prove to be a short-lived aberration.
Bobby Frankel has compiled one of the most extraordinary records in the history of his profession. During the last five years he has won with more than 25 percent of his starters, and he has dramatically improved most of the horses he acquires. But in the Breeders' Cup his career record is 2 for 57. Last year he saddled eight horses, four of them favorites, and they all lost. Sightseek, who looked unbeatable in the Distaff, finished out of the money at 3 to 5. Peace Rules, a paragon of consistency, finished 13th and last in the Mile. Chronic failure in the Breeders' Cup casts a shadow over a trainer's other accomplishments. Maybe that is unfair -- like denigrating a great ballplayer because of a sub-par World Series -- but the Breeders' Cup has become a uniquely definitive test of both horses and trainers. A trainer can earn plenty of money and fame during the rest of the year, but at the Breeders' Cup he can prove his legitimacy to a cynical world.