Tuesday, April 2, 2013

How to Make Trainer Suspensions Matter

One of the most consistent complaints regarding enforcement of racing’s drug rules is that a suspended trainer can hand off his or her horses to an assistant or relative and sit out the suspension while the horses remain in the barn and while their training routine continues uninterrupted.

A current case in point is New York-based trainer Rudy Rodriguez, suspended for 20 days last month for two instances where his horses tested positive for Banamine, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (think Advil for equines) that can be used in training, but not on race day.

Since starting his training career in 2010, Rodriguez has won 350 races, ranking among the top NY trainers at virtually every meet. In 2012, he ranked 15th nationally in number of races won and 19th in earnings. This year, as of the start of his suspension, he was ranked 6th nationally in earnings. He’s also been the subject of the usual backstretch rumors that follow every trainer whose win percentage is far above average. Until the recent suspension, those rumors had little or no support.

But on March 13th, the New York State Gaming Commission, successor to the old Racing and Wagering Board, suspended Rodriguez for 20 days and fined him $7,500 for two instances of illegal use of the drug flunixin (commonly sold as Banamine). (The text of the Commission ruling is here.) The suspension was originally set at 40 days, but shortened to 20, and conveniently scheduled for March 16th through April 4th, allowing Rodriguez to return to the track in time to saddle his Gotham winner and Kentucky Derby hopeful Vyjack in this coming Saturday’s Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. The shorter time was conditioned on Rodriguez’s not having another positive within a year, a condition that may already have been violated.

(Disclosure: one of Rodriguez’s horses that tested positive for flunixin was Alston Gunter, who finished 3rd in the 1st race at Aqueduct on November 21, 2012. My stable, Castle Village Farm, claimed Alston Gunter from Rodriguez on February 22nd, before the positive test was announced. The horse is a tough, professional six-year-old gelding, who probably appreciates a little pain relief from time to time, as we all do, but who can run very well indeed without drugs. In fact, if all goes well, we’ll be racing MD-bred Alston Gunter in a state-bred stakes race at Pimlico at about the same time that Rudy Rodriguez is saddling Vyjack in the Wood at Aqueduct.)

In Rudy’s absence, the routine in his stable goes on exactly as before. The horses are running in the name of his brother, Gustavo. While the win percentage has declined a bit in Rudy’s absence, the stable is still hitting the winners circle at an above-average rate.

Under the terms of the Gaming Commission’s ruling, Rodriguez is not to “directly or indirectly participate in New York State … horse racing” while suspended, and is not permitted to keep at the track any horse that is owned or trained by Rodriguez or his agents or employees. So somehow Gustavo Rodriguez, who functions as Rudy’s assistant and exercise rider when Rudy is on the scene, magically becomes not an agent or employee when Rudy is on suspension.

Even if Rudy is not checking in on a “burner” cell phone – and I have no reason to believe that he is – the situation creates the appearance of impropriety. This business-as-usual response to suspensions is a perennial source of complaints from racing fans and bettors and plays into the perception that racing is a drug-ridden mugs’ game.

Racing has made remarkable progress in the past few years in cracking down on illegal drugs. Steroids have been banished, Lasix administration is being handled by state vets, so there’s no chicanery when a vet goes into the stall to give the pre-race injection, and, at least in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, uniform drug rules are leveling the playing field. But as long as it appears that suspended trainers can just carry on with the usual routine, even if it’s in the hands of the trainer’s brother, girlfriend or assistant, there’s still the odor of corruption.

Fortunately, there’s a solution, one that’s already been implemented in Indiana. The Indiana Administrative Code provides that “the horse(s) of a trainer suspended for more than fifteen (15) days in Indiana shall not be transferred to a spouse, member of the immediate family, assistant, employee, or household member of the trainer.” In other words, if you get a serious suspension, either no horse in the barn races during the suspension period or, if they do, they have to move to some other trainer’s barn. And if that happens, who knows whether the suspended trainer will get the horse back?

The Indiana rule imposes a real penalty on a trainer who draws a suspension, because it interrupts the trainer’s relationship with his or her owners in a way that the same-barn transfer to a relative or assistant does not. At the same time, it doesn’t unduly burden a trainer who has a single positive test for an overage of a permitted drug; such suspensions usually draw a seven- or 10-day suspension, and so the rule would not apply. But if a trainer has repeated positives, the suspension period generally increases, and so a second or third positive would mean that some horses are going to leave the barn.

Some of my trainer friends would probably disagree with this approach, and it certainly does not represent the view of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, of whose Board of Directors I’ve been a member for over a decade. The trainers point out that positive tests for overages of therapeutic drugs don’t really have an impact on a horse’s performance, and that tough “sentencing” rules unfairly penalize trainers who try to play by the rules but whose employees, perhaps, just get a little sloppy. All that’s true, but few would deny that we in racing have an image problem. Perhaps, for trainers, as the 19th-century abolitionistWendell Phillips said, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, or at least the price of staying in business.

It would be interesting to see the response if a racing commission in a major jurisdiction like New York implemented to no-assistants and relatives rule. Seems to me that it might be a sensible approach.

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