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A Shadow on the Eclipses

26 January 2001

The 30th annual Eclipse Awards - thoroughbred racing's Oscars - will be presented Tuesday, Jan. 30, at a gala ceremony in New Orleans. This year an old controversy will share the spotlight, when it comes to naming the Trainer of the Year.

The issue is the illegal medications (as well as the legal ones) sometimes administered to race horses, to either enhance their performance or to minimize their physical ailments. It's a recurring problem that once more has the attention of many leaders and enthusiasts of thoroughbred racing. That the Olympic movement has been damaged because some two-legged athletes use performance-enhancing drugs is not lost on the more perceptive folk in the racing business.

However, the use of illicit drugs by those seeking unfair advantage on the racetrack is nothing new. It possibly goes back to a time when gentlemen in togas were cheering home Ben Hur. More recently, in the 1930s, the federal government successfully prosecuted over a hundred horse trainers and owners for shooting up their animals with drugs as potent as heroin. (One of the street names for heroin used to be "horse.")

Nowadays, chicanery on the racetrack is dealt with by state racing commissions rather than the feds (although the FBI may be called in if some massive wagering fraud is suspected). Most racing jurisdictions in the U.S. permit only two medications in the system of a horse on race day: Lasix , a diuretic used to control bleeding, and butazolidin, or Bute, an anti-inflammatory agent that also acts as a mild painkiller. Some believe that Lasix can wash out or mask other drugs that are prohibited.

There are a few states that do not permit Lasix on race day, and most European countries do not allow any medications at all.

Unapproved drugs that have shown up in American horses as a result of post-race testing have included morphine, procaine, scopolomine and clenbuterol, the latter a bronco-dilator with the added property of helping to muscle up a horse. (It's also been found in show animals.) Even Viagra was found in a horse (and a gelding at that) in a recent New York case.

Harvey Furgatch of San Diego is a former horse owner and breeder who quit the racing game in disgust. He was also once a member of the California Horse Racing Board where he tried unsuccessfully to convince his colleagues to ban all racetrack drugs.

"Too many games can be played with medications," says Furgatch, "too many things the public is completely unaware of. Everyone closes their eyes to it."

A former racing editor of the Pasadena, California, Star-News, Warren Eves, now runs a handicapping service out of Las Vegas. "I'd be kidding you if I told you [the illegal doping] doesn't affect anyone who does a handicap," he states. It's not only the host of performance-enhancing drugs on the backside , he points out, but the widespread practice of "blocking," injecting a pain-killer directly into the nerves of hurting horses. Eves says that these drugs are very difficult to discover in post-race tests.

Cheaters Get an Edge from Chemistry

Advances in pharmacology, he claims, also serve to give the cheaters an edge. "Chemists have told me you can change the molecular structure of a drug to make it undetectable. To say I'm disgusted with it is an understatement. It's gone from clenbuterol to blood doping. Somebody has got to step up to indict the cheaters in our training ranks."

Gary Jones, now retired, was once a leading thoroughbred trainer in California. "Ask any real horseman," he says, "all they want is a level playing field. When things are really going good, you win maybe one in four races. And then you see some kid come in who's getting 50 percent winners, and that goes on for a year. And then it suddenly stops, maybe because the board gets after them. There's a lot of good trainers out there who would be in favor of just entirely eliminating all the drugs."

One of the three Eclipse Award nominees for Trainer of the Year is Scott Lake, a thoroughbred conditioner who mostly works the tracks in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey. Lake's career zoomed from operating a one-horse stable at Penn National to a few years later, in 1998, being ranked fourth nationally in win percentage. In the year 2000 he was far and away the top win percentage trainer in the country.

In the spring of last year, Andy Beyer, in his column in the Washington Post, discussed the trainer with "a record that defies precedent . . . In a game in which illegal drugs are often used, any trainer who achieves a measure of sudden success will be the object of suspicions. Lake's achievements are so phenomenal that suspicions about him are widespread . . . He regularly claims horses from other competent trainers and improves them drastically."

Those who handicap the horses, either for a service or for their own personal wagering, are among Lake's most vociferous critics. They believe he represents a dangerous trend in thoroughbred racing, and are dismayed at his nomination for an Eclipse Award. "It's a slap in the face to everybody in the game," is the way Gary Young puts it.

Young, a respected clocker - he times horses during their early morning workouts, looking for an edge - makes his living by betting on his knowledge of the game. From his base in Los Angeles he also works as an advisor to those interested in purchasing horses at auction.

"When I came to California in 1981 there were about four or five veterinarians practicing on the backstretch. Now there's about 20 of them, maybe more, with no significant increase in the number of horses. If you want to get your [training]business started, what better way than to jump the fence and use illegal drugs?

"There are trainers that go on [winning] runs out here that are unbelievable, almost Scott Lake-like. Guys who have been losers for years, then all of a sudden their win percentage is huge. I love this sport and I'd like to be wrong, but I don't think I am. The cheating, if it's not increasing, definitely isn't subsiding." He acknowledges that it affects his livelihood. "Making a living betting on horses is tough enough, without trying to figure out who's cheating."

"A Battle of the Best Untraceable Drugs"?

Young recently wrote an opinion piece on the matter for The Blood Horse magazine, in which he pointed out that Europeans believe that American racing is "a battle of the best untraceable drugs." The most commonly heard slogan on American tracks, he wrote, is: "If you're not cheating, you're not trying." And that he's heard fans cheer their horse on by yelling, "Kick in the juice."

Of Lake, he says, "I've heard that his barn looks like a livery stable, but he turns lifelong losers into stakes horses. He claimed a horse that hadn't won in 15 tries, and when he gets it, it wins 6 in a row. And some of his horses miraculously go up by 40 Beyer points." (Andy Beyer some years ago devised a method of measuring a horse's true speed at various distances; a boldfaced number, known as a "Beyer," now appears in each horse's past performance column in the Daily Racing Form.)

"It's crazy. If Lake is that good then he's the greatest trainer we've ever seen. But I think it's a lot more likely that it's the other alternative."

In the Washington Post story Beyer (who is turf editor for that newspaper) notes that "The annals of the sport are filled with the names of miracle workers who suddenly plunged into obscurity. If Lake is not playing by the rules he will be unmasked."

Beyer interviewed Lake for the story, and the trainer said his success was due to a different training regimen than that used by most of his colleagues. He rarely works a horse in the usual way, simply walks them daily with an occasional gallop. "I don't believe in drilling them to death," he told Beyer.

Later that year he told a Philadelphia Inquirer writer that he also will go to the trouble and expense of shipping a horse out of state so as to find the right race for him to win, something most trainers won't bother to do with cheap claimers. The Inquirer story, though, dryly noted that Lake has never shipped to New York, which has the nation's toughest drug laws for race horses. Lake said he didn't go to the Big Apple because the equine competition there was too tough.

Contacted by phone for this article, Lake reiterated what he'd told Beyer last spring, that his success was due to his less stressful training techniques. "Anyone who wants to spend time in my barn, they're more than welcome, to see the job my grooms do, that we do and that my owners do in finding horses to claim. No one can say anything until they know how I run my barn. People form their own opinions. I have nothing whatsoever to hide."

That some of his horses have tested positive and that he has been suspended he freely admits, but says it's no more than any trainer with a big barn will incur at times, and that grooms make errors on occasion. "But nothing exotic," he says of the drugs that he was fined for, like clenbuterol and banamine. "Nothing more than normal." (The story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, however, stated that Lake had been suspended in Pennsylvania for 45 days, in 1994, for possession of hypodermic syringes, a hypodermic needle, and "injectable substances.")

Beyer had written that it was also quite possible that Scott Lake's success could be attributed to hard work and sound horsemanship, and since that article appeared has apparently convinced himself that this is the case. Recently he announced he had voted for Lake as Trainer of the Year, believing him worthy of the Eclipse.

Gary Young wonders if Beyer understands the implications of his own speed figures; no one, thinks Young, can consistently improve a horse by 20, 30 or 40 Beyer numbers. And he can't believe that the industry will give Lake an Eclipse Award. "Voting for Scott Lake as Trainer of the Year," he snorts, "is like voting for Bill Clinton as Husband of the Year."

Bob Owens is a freelance writer based in San Diego. He has covered sports and betting for more than 20 years.

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