Money and the message
Updated: December 3, 2009, 5:27 PM ETBy Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com
Look, I get it. Nobody has any money these days. Those who do aren't in the business of cooperation. Everywhere I turn this week, I see squeeze plays and people squeezed out, hitting home personally.So it comes as little surprise that we learned Tuesday that the Kentucky Racing Commission succumbed to the financial squeeze when it announced that all race winners would no longer be required to participate in post-race testing for banned substances. While samples will continue to be pulled on all race winners, only 50 percent of those samples would be processed by laboratory screening under the plan. Meanwhile, the commission elected to test more horses in a race that are deemed to be suspicious by means of performance. Where this new amount of testing meets vs. the current standard of two horses per race (the winner and a randomly chosen horse from the stewards) is expected to be in the range of 25 to 30 percent fewer tests overall. Under this system, laboratory techs would randomly sample which winners to process the blood and urine samples. Also, the on-track stewards would have the discretion to decide which horses are sampled, based on a set of guidelines such as: beaten favorites, longshots who outrun their posted odds, strange wagering patterns and investigator's recommendations. The steward's choice element already is in place in the daily process, as part of the current "winner and one other" testing procedure. The commission reported that post-race testing in that state cost nearly a half-million dollars for a six-month period this year. By reducing the number of tests and keeping the random-processing element in play, the hope is that a deterrent remains while costs soften. Not lost in the timing of all this is the fact a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer and runner-up currently are serving suspensions for medication infractions in the state, Richard Dutrow (Big Brown, 2008 Derby winner) and Kiaran McLaughlin (Closing Argument, 2005 Derby runner-up). Their misdeeds came with different horses, of course, at Churchill Downs and Keeneland, respectively, and no matter what you think of the threshold levels and each conditioner's "intent" in those individual cases, much less the length and severity of punishments, I like the basic message sent: no one is beyond justice when it comes to not playing by the rules. But the message sent by this latest Kentucky Racing Commission decision has it all wrong. The place to save money is not where it pertains to keeping the horses, jockeys and betting public safe, much less the intangible word of "integrity" as it pertains to horse racing. Tough cuts need to be made in tough times, no argument there. But the last thing I want to see is a loosening of toughness on one of the single-most important elements of destruction in the game I love: the appearance of cheating trainers. I'm not blowing smoke when I say that the drug situation has been crippling to the game. Not only do I know several people who have cut back or left the wagering game because of it, I can personally tell you that it has impacted my handle directly. So angered by the blatant disregard for authority by the likes of trainers Jeff Mullins and Rick Dutrow, I have sworn off betting races that include their horses, and have for some time. "If you can't beat them, join them" has never presented itself as a very logical case in my entertainment decision-making. When posed with hundreds of races nationally to play every day, it's very easy to see those names in the program and bypass the fourth from Hollywood Park or the sixth from Aqueduct. The only times I have bet races that included those trainers in recent years have been Triple Crown and or Breeders' Cup events, because I simply have too much of a love for those long-standing good things in horse racing to let the bad apples rot the whole lot. But I have absolutely, positively no qualms about bypassing a hundred everyday races and stakes in a row with those guys competing. I don't trust them; and they don't care about me, or any other fans. Perhaps you take umbrage with my rap sheet and find fault in it for a myriad of reasons. That's your prerogative. Why just stop at those two? Why not avoid every race with a questionable trainer (leaving how many?). The answer would be: I guess I just haven't reached my breaking point yet. In life, you take stands and draw lines in the sand as they evolve. But making things mathematically easier on potential cheats pushes me closer and closer to that breaking point, and I know I'm not alone. Saving a buck on racing's drug war won't save anything. In fact, it only makes things worse to the bottom line. So what can states do about the expense? Nothing irritates more than someone complaining without a solution. The answer remains simple from this eye: reduce the number of live racing days. You want to cut 30 percent out of your post-race testing budget? Run 30 percent fewer races and make sure the 70 percent you keep are held to the highest standards possible. Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the managing partner of the handicapping website Horseplayerpro.com. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.