Commentary

Keeping it real when it comes to cheating

Updated: September 21, 2007, 10:56 AM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Opposing writers could be videotaping me as I type this column; that's why I'm going with the dark-sunglasses-and-leather-gloves look this week. Maybe they're behind one of those two-way mirrored walls trying to figure out where I'm coming up with next big Breeders' Cup statistic. Heck, I hear rumors that somewhere -- in a tiny office cubicle shoe-horned in Anytown, USA -- there's an over-the-hill sportswriter juicing up so he can take one more run at me.

Whether it's New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Chinese Women's World Cup soccer spies or San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, it's hard to avoid the topic of cheating in 2007. If you read enough, it just might make you paranoid.

Thoroughbred racing certainly can't hide its head in the sand (or Polytrack). When 2007 opened, the trainers of the three biggest stables in the nation all were serving suspensions for medication infractions -- Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen and Doug O'Neill. Pletcher and Asmussen would wind up winning two-thirds of the Triple Crown with their Rags to Riches (Belmont) and Curlin (Preakness), respectively.

And as Curlin prepares for a shot at the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic next month at Monmouth Park, two of his owners, William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham, Jr., sit in a prison cell awaiting an Oct. 15 trial date for allegedly milking $46 million out of clients that the embattled lawyers represented in a fen-phen diet drug lawsuit.

Perhaps even more disturbing to fans of Thoroughbred racing is an ongoing investigation in Kentucky revolving around top-class trainer Patrick Biancone, who could have as many as a half-dozen legitimate contenders in the 11 divisional Breeders' Cup championship races. The trainer's veterinarian, Dr. Rod Stewart (yes, Rod Stewart, we couldn't make this stuff up if we tried), already has been suspended for five years by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority for possession of cobra venom (a painkiller outlawed in the jurisdiction) among other infractions. A decision on the Biancone portion of the investigation is pending.

But what separates horse racing from other spectator sports is the obvious influence of legal, pari-mutuel gambling. It completely changes the dynamic of pure fan and active participant. If you don't like what an admitted steroids user is doing to his or her body in baseball, football, track and field, etc., you can purchase a ticket and boo until you're hoarse (no pun intended).

But what do you do if you love the No. 6 horse in today's fourth race and he's trained by a Jeff Mullins, Scott Lake or Rick Dutrow, big-name guys who all have sat out various suspensions for misuse of medications in recent years?

You bet with more confidence than ever.

At least that's what most savvy horseplayers I've spoken with, and shared thoughts with over the blogosphere, have said.

This week, some of the best bloggers horse racing has to offer sounded off on the topic of cheating at Horseplayerdaily.com's Big Blog Page. What the racing industry and general public should learn from their exchanges is that: nobody's fooled; nobody feels good about it; and dishonesty has become such a part of life in 21st century sports, business and mainstream culture that the consumer is so numb to the situation it's as if they have been injected with a double-shot of cobra venom themselves.

Consider:

"It doesn't really matter to my handicapping whether the trainer is just darn good or a dirty rotten cheat," writes the Englishman who blogs under the name Horse Racing Around the World. "If the stats suggest victory and I like the horse, I'll play the game ... Do I tour the paddock checking horses for snake venom breath or for unusual muscular development of the Schwarzenegger variety? ... No I don't. Do I think I'd do any better as a handicapper in a clean world? Probably not."

"The greatest hypocrisy in all of sports is in horse racing," writes OCTAVE-the-RAVE, continuing later, "Catch cheaters? Ferret-out drugged horses? Suspend trainers? Toward what end? So already strapped and distressed racing secretaries can empty-out stalls and further deplete already desperately depleted racing stocks? ... The reason it's never going to happen is because making it happen effectively will end the game as we know it."

" ... it's been many years since I went to the track expecting to find integrity," blogs Thehoarsehorseplayer. "One would have a better chance finding orchids in Antarctica, I suspect. Let's be honest here; part of the appeal and romance of going to the race track in my formative years was that it gave me a chance to hob nob with the wise guys, swim with the sharks. I mean, when I took the A train out to Aqueduct on Sunday, I knew I wasn't going to church."

"I enjoy sports that are fixed," Queenbee flatly admits in his blog. "I loved jai alai. I bet it at the old MGM in Las Vegas and Reno. I knew it was anything but on the up-and-up, and part of the plan was to guess how this outcome had been arranged. It was a different form of handicapping, but handicapping it was."

Finally, the blog community's respected grand dame, LadyHorseplayer, sums it up best when she writes, "Someday, when someone asks me why I love horse racing, I'd like to answer without hesitation, without guilt, and without wondering how much longer I will be able to remain loyal to my favorite sport."

Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine and its Web site, HorsePlayerdaily.com. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or any other racing-related topic at plonk@horseplayerdaily.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

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