Cleaning up

Updated: July 10, 2007, 6:06 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

They cheat at, or have cheated at, boxing, basketball, football, baseball, bingo, blackjack, roulette, track and field, cycling, all kinds of racing, business, bridge, marriage, making elephants disappear, cards, and bass fishing.

A simpler question might be: Who doesn't appear to be cheating?

You see a bowling ball knocking pins into the coffee shop and you think: Would somebody please get that ball and slice it in half and see if there's just a touch of titanium inside. You see a table of people playing mega-dollar poker and wonder: Could this one be signaling something across the table to that one, as if in cahoots?

What is cheating, anyway?

Cheating is gaining an unfair advantage, or it's tanking.

Golf or tennis on the pro level, there's no cheating there, or with hot dog eating; though, is being a rich kid so you can hit 1,000 golf balls a day at the country club taking unfair advantage at golf?

Close.

Some cheating is okay by me, scuffing baseballs, for example, or hollowing out baseball bats. That's more like gamesmanship. Plus, those who do it usually get caught on national television.

Cons and capers have taken on added allure because all the good ones seem to have been thought of. We're on what, "Ocean's Baker's Dozen?" The appeal of a good bit of skullduggery is such that I sat down one year, eight to five, and thought up a new way to rob a bank. Some writers give the impression that inspiration comes half drunk with an Atlantic Ocean view. Not hardly. You sit and think and fend off mental and emotional troubles. You go through all the ways banks have been robbed, then one day, seriously, the only way left to get the money out of a bank comes to mind, that, or you quit and seek another job. It took less time to write the novel "Quick Change" than it did to think of it. Bill Murray did the movie, acted in it and directed it. The first of the film was absolutely sensationally terrific, as it came pretty much word for word from the novel. The last of the picture, I had never seen before, and it was somewhat goofy. But I did get to admire Geena Davis one night from afar in the Newark Airport. I was invited up to watch a night of shooting in the men's restroom. And they say print writers have it rough. Then guess what, Spike Lee built a flick of his own around the idea, "Inside Man." Talk about a festival of conning.

Getting back to sports, the possibility of someone attaining an unfair advantage is built into some games, the home-field advantage, for example: subtract points in the gambling line for impressionable officials.

The search in horse racing for a loophole big enough to drive a 30-1 shot through has changed. Cheating at horse racing used to involve choreographing a finish so that a huge pari-mutuel payoff could be won by the crooks, with dozens of seedy and shady characters working in concert. With a favorite or two yanked, an exact order of something like 12, 2, 4, 3 had to be arranged on the backstretch, an image of horses bobbing and weaving and changing lanes comes to mind.

Anymore, the rules violations you hear about involve performance-enhancing tactics. Boost a horse above and beyond. Keep it simple because complicated wagers are easy to trace. Cameras can zoom close to jockey shorts. Printing a winning ticket after a race sounds fun, but detectable. Changing computer-generated odds from 2-1 to 20-1 might be entertaining.

With horse racing, the line, or lineup, that separates brilliant training and fishiness is sometimes tough to identify. Patiently letting a horse round into shape? Genius. Not trying to win? Possible violation.

At the highest level of horse racing, accidentally spiking the oats might seem worth the risk to some, given lame penalties, like a scolding. But you have to trust somebody -- might as well be the hammer of justice, that over the long haul, the cheaters will get theirs.

At the lowest level, you see a lot of weird stuff on a daily basis, and if there's one thing the handicapper of cheap claiming races knows, it's weirdness. Weirdness is a handicapping tool that can be detected in the Form in a trainer's stats - somebody 1-for-50 winning two in a row, for example - or on the tote board as something terrible is actually bet. Horse racing is every bit as stat-conscious as baseball. Character runs off the page at you. So does what's out of character.

There's one thing other sports have that we don't: human growth hormones.

So as the $5,000 claimers are loaded into the gate, I'll take my chances here, thanks anyhow for the invitation to the game.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com