As I write this, ESPN is broadcasting an excellent segment of its show "Outside the Lines" focusing, documentary style, upon the industry's various perceptions of racing integrity. The long piece focuses more upon the Times' groundbreaking work than it does upon O'Neill's situation but it's clear that the news hook-- the reason the piece aired yesterday-- is the Belmont itself. Take the time to watch the whole clip. It's really good:
The segment's conclusions are familiar to anyone who has been paying attention (lately or otherwise) to the health of the sport: 1) The industry doesn't police itself well enough
to be trusted, 2) state regulators don't police the sport much at all,
3) legislators won't care until they are lobbied to do so, 4) industry leaders refuse to cede control over their respective fiefdoms for the common good, and 5) the horses ultimately are the ones who bear the brunt of the problem.
This is what the sport lacks. What does it need? It needs centralized drug rules and national enforcement. It needs clear medication rules and ruthless enforcement. It needs a massive investment in anti-doping testing as well as a new commitment to gumshoe investigative work. The sport needs a leader, a Commissioner, someone who will have the legal authority and political power to make decisions "in the best interests of racing." The needs are as obvious as the sport's stubborn refusal to address them.
This is what the sport needs. What does it get instead? It gets the New York Racing Association inexplicably refusing to allow ESPN to use video clips of horses going down. It gets sycophantic racing writers asking the American people to ignore the grim truth about a hundred horses, or a thousand horses, in favor of glorifying the worthy exploits of a single horse. This is why this year's Belmont is so crucial. It will mark another moment in the sport's long history where its actors will have a meaningful opportunity, perhaps for the last time, to salvage its future.
THE FAR TURN
Everyone seems to think I dislike O'Neill. I don't. For example, I like the way he reacted last week to the comments of Penny Chenery, the great Secretariat's owner, who pointedly told me that I'll Have Another's owner, Canadian-born Paul Reddam, should be "embarrassed" at having O'Neill as a trainer. Chenery was sending a strong message many industry stakeholders believe needs to be sent to owners around the sport. But O'Neill was smart enough to understand that his response would be more important than Chenery's comment itself. O'Neill said:
It's disappointing because of how much respect I have for Mrs. Cheney. I would love to have her hang out with me for a week and would stress to her, "Don't believe everything that is written."
This is pitch perfect. An appropriately humble response to a legitimate concern raised about him by a woman whose positive impact upon horse racing for the past 40 years has been immeasurable. This is why so many people over the past five weeks, in and out of the sport, have defended O'Neill. But then, just one week later, O'Neill uttered this nonsense to Bob Costas when asked about the doping allegations that have followed him from California:
through our vigorous contesting of these allegations, we've learned that there
are numerous issues that can raise a horse's TCO2 levels be it the weather that
day, be it the gender of the horse, be it the sweat, if the horse sweats too
much. It's not a drug, and that's something that gets tossed around a lot in
the media that high TCO2 is that a horse has a drug in it, but it's all a
natural reading that every horse has.
California put in a rule four or five
years ago that if a horse had a high TCO2, he was deemed to have been
milkshaked and then some of the other parts of the country followed suit and
just through running a lot of horses, we've kind of fallen into a couple
pickles but we run a clean barn, and through all this extra examination we've
been able to show how much we love the horses...
In horse racing, everyone has an excuse. Everyone has an explanation. No one accepts responsibility. Regulators don't enforce the rules aggressively enough. And when they do the targets of their investigation whine about how unfair the rules are. A few weeks ago, for example, New York regulators suspended a harness racing trainer for nearly 1,700 pre-race medication violations. How did the industry react? Leading trainers were outraged-- at regulators. "We all do it," the trainers said. Can you imagine?
AFTER THE WIRE