Commentary


Stan Bergstein’s Daily Racing Form columns

With permission of Daily Racing Form, Stan Bergstein’s bi-weekly columns for that publication will appear here every other week.

 

A little money would go long way toward catching those using illegal drugs

The story should have driven racing’s Richter scale past the 9.0 mark.

It was an earthquake, but it didn’t move the needle.

It was a short column written by a man who writes very little on Thoroughbred racing, but who shakes up harness racing with his offerings from time to time in a rising newsletter called Harness Racing Update and another in Australia called Harness Link.

His name is Andrew Cohen, and although he owns pacers he is far too smart to rely on race horses to make a living. He works for CBS, as chief legal analyst and legal editor of CBS News. And he also writes on national issues for the intellectually challenging Atlantic Monthly.

His job is interesting in the context of this column, for a lesser man might not walk where angels fear to tread. Cohen walks confidently, knowing the soft spots but the hard ground as well.

About a year ago, he came as close as one safely could on suggesting that one of the sport’s leading trainers was using illegal juice.

In an Atlantic Monthly article written about 10 months ago he named the performance enhancing substance being imported from France, with a long technical name but more commonly referred to as NormOxys or ITPP. He thinks it could be the rocket fuel skewing the sport’s results in some cases. Cohen wants authorities in harness racing to put up the $100,000 needed by noted toxicologist Dr. Larry Soma of the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleagues at the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory, to finish work that could produce a reliable test for the illegal substance. There currently is none for it, and it reportedly stimulates faster blood release into oxygen.

One would have to be naïve to think that something that makes stars out of claimers – and could help make literally millions for some owners and trainers who win slot-infused major purses – would escape the notice of Thoroughbred trainers looking for an edge. Like their small group of despicable counterparts in harness racing, they will use the stuff as long as they aren’t being caught.

Cohen suggested that Standardbred Canada and the United States Trotting Association, the record-keeping and registry bodies of harness racing in Canada and the U.S. – put up the money. That drew silence.

He also thinks the leading racing states and provinces – Ontario, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, and soon Ohio when the slot money begins flowing to Buckeye purses – could get together and fund Soma’s work.

No one has publicly contradicted Cohen’s statements, and you would think the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, based in Lexington, Ky., knows about the stuff. The RMTC, like other racing groups, is starved for funds, and it appears financial help will have to come from elsewhere.

Cohen wrote recently, “It should not have taken this long to respond to Dr. Soma’s call. And it shouldn’t take another six months, either. This is precisely the sort of thing our industry should be rushing to do if we are to be serious about racing integrity. Yes, I know, it’s bad publicity for the sport to be seen as scrambling to stem a new drug problem. But you know what’s worse? Bad publicity and fleeing bettors sick of what they are seeing these days. Besides, a good marketing campaign could easily make a donation for such a cause an asset.”

Cohen was speaking to a harness racing audience, but I will speak to the runners.

ITPP, which was compounded in France only six years ago, can be a scourge. And like other scourges, most recently rinderpest in cattle, it can be caught and tamed.

The Jockey Club, which has used Ogden Mills Phipps’s determination, power, wealth, and leadership as chairman for so many worthwhile issues on medication, should interest itself on this one. Jim Gagliano, its young, resourceful, and highly motivated president and COO, can move and guide the effort. And Alex Waldrop, the president and CEO of the NTRA, speaks eloquently for Thoroughbred tracks on the medication issue. That’s a formidable trifecta to open a campaign, and there are scores of effective racing leaders to back them.

Dr. Soma is ready and waiting. Now is one of those critical moments for racing. Let’s grab this opportunity to get the bad apples out of the barrel. They will sicken us all if we don’t.

Thoroughbred publicist tries to get ink for Zenyatta of harness racing

Harness racing, with at least one huge story to tell as summer arrives, has turned to a Thoroughbred man to help tell it.

The story is that of See You At Peelers, a 3-year-old pacing filly who has won 18 straight races, has never been beaten, whipped colts in a major stakes at Yonkers Raceway, and has won more than a million dollars, but can’t get a line in major North American newspapers. Her trainer, Jimmy Takter, one of the best in the sport, calls her the Zenyatta of harness racing.

The man whose job now will be, in small part, to get her into black type and on television and magazines, is Dan Leary, whose racing career has been exclusively with runners. He has been named Director of Communications by Mike Tanner, the executive vice president of the United States Trotting Association, the Jockey Club of harness racing, in Columbus, Ohio.

Leary is widely traveled in the running ranks. He goes to the USTA from his most recent work as director of communications at Lone Star Park in Texas and at Arlington Park in Illinois, where he spent eight years in that post. He is a former assistant director of public relations and broadcast services media for the New York Racing Association, has worked in PR jobs at Gulfstream and Hialeah, served as media center manager for the last two Breeders’ Cups, and was the recent two-term president of the Turf Publicists of America through last year.

He also has worked as director of information for the National Hockey League and held similar jobs for the American Bowling Congress and its ABC tournament.

If he thinks any of those jobs over three decades in sports after graduating from Boston College were tough, he now is tackling an even tougher one.

Harness racing, with a 200-year history in this country, was the dominant racing sport of the late 1800s, until the coming of the automobile in the early 1900s drove horses off the roads of the nation.

It had a huge resurgence after World War II, with the introduction of night racing at Roosevelt Raceway in New York and the growth of the game in most major cities of the country.

Its acceptance by the country’s press was less successful, and its virtual disappearance from the New York Times, which influences journalism coast-to-coast in the U.S., was a costly blow. The Times treatment was gradual. The paper sent one of its best known writers, Gay Talese, to cover the opening of a new Yonkers Raceway in the 1980s, but as new sports editors who learned sports in front of television sets as kids took over, coverage declined to near zero. Thoroughbred racing fared better, but also has suffered a media relapse since its days of its pre-TV glory.

The See You at Peelers story is fascinating enough to make a solid feature in the Times or any other media source. The filly was named for a strip joint, Peelers, as an inside joke involving a former owner in the stable. A primary beneficiary of her success has been – as with all Takter-trained top horses – Jimmy’s beautiful wife Christina, a prototype Swedish beauty. Takter’s horses won $7,879,955 last year, and with See You At Peelers now at $1,205,713 and the rich New York Sires Stakes ahead, where she figures to be totally dominant, and the Takter-trained Pastor Stephen a leading candidate for this year’s $1.5 million Hambletonian, there is no reason to think the stable won’t have an even bigger year this season. Since his wife is a partner in all of his best horses, and runs the stable’s business besides, Christina sits in perhaps the most enviable position in harness racing.

Jimmy and Christina came to this country from Sweden, where Jimmy’s father was an outstanding trainer, and Jimmy was an immediate success here. He is a major player at all of the yearling sales, with an unerring eye for a good horse, and the ability to produce champions after buying them. He and Christina own a spectacular home and training center in New Jersey’s horse country, with American flags and motifs spelling out clearly their love for their adopted country. They have good reason to love it. Horses Jimmy has trained have won $54,963,088 since he arrived here, and he also is approaching 1,000 wins in horses he has driven, although top catch drivers, including his son-in-law, Marcus Johansson, also from Sweden, handle most of the Takter driving assignments. Jimmy has been nominated for election to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame this year by the nation’s harness writers, and has a good chance to make it.

All of this should give Dan Leary a flying start in his new career, and we wish him well. Give Jimmy Takter a call, Dan. He can get you off and trotting on the right hoof.

Bitless bridles could be gift to horses

Illegal medication and what to do about it is buzzing again, with the arrival of hot weather.

Racing Commissioners International want furosemide (aka Salix or Lasix) on race day banned in five years.

Rep. Ed Whitfield from Kentucky and Sen. Tom Udall from New Mexico have introduced federal legislation to end the use of performance-enhancing drugs in horse racing.

My Tucson neighbor Ed Martin, president of the racing commissioners, wants Rick Dutrow and his 64 or more sanctions for rule violations barred from racing. That decision, has been postponed until Saratoga summer in New York

Racing leaders are meeting next week, however, at Belmont, to talk – once again – on the subject, this time in a “summit,” the height of which is unknown but can be guessed.

So it was timely this week when I received an e-mail from an old acquaintance, an academic with impressive credentials, reasserting his view that the problem is soluble with some draconian action.

He says if the use of bits in horses’ mouths were abolished, “horsemen could do much for the horse, themselves and the reputation of racing,” which really is what most of the noise is all about.

My friend is not a crank or a gadfly writer of letters to the editor.

He is a Ph.D., professor of surgery emeritus at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Turfs University in Grafton, Mass., and author of more than 25 papers on the subject of bleeding in racehorses in various veterinary journals, dating back to 1974, when he was the first researcher I know to publish evidence indicating that racehorses suffering “nosebleeds” were in fact bleeding from the lungs.

He is Robert Cook, who also serves as chairman of BitlessBridle Inc., a conflict of interest he offers without apology.

He says he knows that by removing the bit exercise-enduced pulmonary hemorrhaging would not be entirely eliminated, since some uncommon sources of airway obstruction would still occur, but he says its frequency would be significantly reduced. He says removal of bits also would result in a major reduction in dorsal displacement of the soft palate, which he says is almost exclusively caused by the bit. And he says removal of them “also would result in a reduction in epiglottal entrapment, catastrophic musculo-skeletal accidents and breakdowns caused by bit-induced pathophysiology, pain and fatigue.”

He rejects the name of exercise-induced hemorrhage and the theory that high blood pressure during racing is an inherent part of the Thoroughbred’s makeup and that bleeding is inevitable or normal. He rejects that on grounds that it is not consistent with equine physiology, saying it is neither exclusively exercise-induced nor a true hemorrhage. Airways are for air, not blood, he says, and an abnormally negative pressure in the small airways results from any obstruction of the upper airway, the tract from the nostril to the first rib.

Dr. Cook says in the last 13 years he has discovered that there is a common and serious cause of airway obstruction, and that “it has been staring man in the face for 5,000 years.” He is referring to the bit, and he contends that bitless racing and training would be safer for the horse and rider, accidents would be reduced, performance enhanced, and the horse’s quality of life improved.

He realizes some readers will question how a bit in the mouth could possibly obstruct the airway, but he points out that while the bit lies on the tip of the tongue, the substantial and long root of the tongue lies in the throat. When a horse avoids the bit by withdrawing the tip of its tongue, which Cook calls a common evasion, the root of the tongue bulges in the horse’s throat, which in turn elevates the soft palate, which lies on the tongue’s root, and thus obstructs the airway.

I asked Dr. Cook about the issue of control. Here is his answer.

“It is a longstanding myth that a bit controls a horse. It doesn’t. On the contrary, I now realize that the bit is the most common reason why a rider or driver loses control. The bit is the most frequent cause of bolting, bucking, balking, rearing, and another 200 or more examples of pain-induced behavior. The responses are normal for the horse but inconvenient for the rider and sometimes fatal. The cross-under bitless bridle (if you want a generic name) provides comprehensive and much better communication than a bit. Riders and drivers are infinitely safer and far less likely to trigger spooks and spills. Horses are calmer. They ‘listen’ and ‘learn’ far better when they are not in pain. A bit frightens many a horse and makes him nervous, apprehensive and ‘hot.’ ”

Dr. Cook welcomes calls (telephone and fax 443-282-0472) and/or e-mail at [email protected]. He will be happy to send you the full text of the extracted version printed here.

It might be interesting if attendees at next week’s summit called or read his paper. Science has reversed itself for the better innumerable times over the centuries. One more reversal might not hurt, and possibly could help, racing.