Claiborne's Hancock just says no

One of the reasons Claiborne Farm will send fewer runners to the races next year is its president's fear that horse racing's drug problem has gotten out of hand.

Updated: October 15, 2001, 11:34 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

When Seth Hancock announced earlier this month that Claiborne Farm was cutting back on its racing operation and largely abandoning the Kentucky racing circuit, he listed numerous reasons, some of which weren't that earth shattering. Claiborne's private trainer Frank Brothers had decided to move on to a similar position with Lazy Lane Farm and Hancock wasn't pleased with the stagnant purses at the Kentucky tracks. But not all of Hancock's complaints were quite so innocent. He went public with his belief that there are too many drugs, legal and otherwise, in the sport today. Good for him.

"They've always said they were going to clean this state (Kentucky) up and they haven't done so in my view," Claiborne's president said. "I'd say my problems with Kentucky racing are 50 percent the purses and 50 percent the drug issue."

Like most, Hancock isn't sure how bad the problem really is. But he knows there is a problem, beginning with the liberal use of permissive medication. Kentucky is believed to have the most liberal medication rules in the country, but it is far from alone in condoning the use of drugs that were illegal everywhere up until the 1970s and remain illegal throughout the rest of the racing world.

"Twenty five years ago before they had permissive medication horses averaged 40 or 41 starts during their careers," he notes. "Now it's 20 or 21. I can't say for sure that permissive medication has anything to do with that but the circumstantial evidence is very strong."

On the subject of illegal drugs, Hancock has been one of many running a squeaky clean operation and wonders if that puts him at a disadvantage.

"Where there is smoke there is usually fire and there's an awful lot of smoke when it comes to this," he said. "I may not be knowledgeable enough to speak intelligently on this, but around the racetracks you hear a lot about this. It may just be rumors, but when there are so many rumors there's usually a lot of fact attached to them."

Claiborne's reduced stable will be divided between Shug McGaughey in New York and Richard Mandella in California with a handful remaining in Kentucky. Hancock's decision will not change racing as we know it. Far from it. But he is an important and, unfortunately, lonely voice, crying out for some sanity to return to the sport's drug issues. Let's hope someone is listening.

Should Breeders' Cup change supplements?
When owner John Amerman announced that he would not put up the $800,000 supplementary fee required to enter Whitney and Woodward Lido Palace in the Breeders' Cup Classic the result was predictable. People weren't happy. The Classic had lost arguably the best older horse in training, which no one wants to see, especially in a championship event. The news led to new cries for the Breeders' Cup to change its system to make it easier for non-nominated horses to get in.

And that would be a mistake.

While it's in everyone's best interest to have every top horse available in the Breeders' Cup, don't forget that the millions in purse money given away each year is derived from fees paid by breeders to make their stallions and their foals eligible. Those same people have to have an incentive to pay the money up front. If it is made too easy to supplement a non-eligible horse to the Breeders' Cup, no one going to pay the initial nominating fees that are the engine that drives the train.

The Breeders' Cup made a wise decision when it changed some of its rules, namely allowing horses who were supplemented once to the Breeders' Cup to remain eligible for the rest of their careers and adding the supplementary fees to the purse. With those rules in place, a bevy of horses were supplemented last year, including John's Call, Colstar, Tiznow and Captain Steve.

But enough is enough. The system, as it is now, is as good as it's going to get.

Witch doctor doesn't come through
Some people will do anything to improve the fortunes of their horses. Even witchcraft. According to the Africa Eye News Service, a witch doctor has been ordered by the Supreme Court of Malawi to pay a South African stable 2.2 million Rand ($241,000) it allegedly swindled from the stable. The witch doctor, known as Chikalamba, promised that he would affect the stable with powerful charms that would make it win. He charged the stable 980,000 Rand ($107,000) and demanded a new Mercedes-Benz. The charms did nothing to help the struggling and apparently gullible barn.

Chikalamba has failed to pay the money, so a warrant has been issued for his arrest. He could also be charged in Malawi with witch craft, which is illegal. Malawi is a country in southern Africa.

Any chance he can help with my picks?

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com

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