Watching the Wheels – March 2024

by Mike Tanner, USTA Executive Vice President and CEO

Fair or Foul?

Are zero-tolerance policies truly effective?

 

Before I started at the USTA, I was the director of racing operations at Harrah’s Chester (now Harrah’s Philadelphia) for the first three years of the track’s existence. We wanted to run a clean ship, and I entered my job frustrated by what I saw as a gaming of the system by horsepeople who would appeal positive tests for months and sometimes years. This, I vowed, would stop on my watch.

We enacted a zero-tolerance policy that denied racing privileges to anyone who had a case under appeal with any state racing commission, not just Pennsylvania’s. Until the matter was adjudicated, that individual could not enter horses at Harrah’s Chester. It didn’t matter if it was a minute therapeutic overage or a positive for EPO; using the track’s private property right of exclusion, I treated them all the same. Horses started being transferred to family members, and I barred them, too. Second trainers came into the fold, and I kept them out. Owners started to complain, but I was defending the integrity of racing. I didn’t care.

Until I did.

What happened was predictable. The policy cast a wide net and caught some fish, but it employed no discretion and turned a blind eye to nuance. Lesser violations were treated the same as positives for EPO. Beyond that, I was presuming everyone guilty until they could prove their innocence. And several were, indeed, innocent victims of contamination positives and whose ability to make a living I had, at least temporarily, disrupted. That realization came abruptly, and I rescinded the policy that week. There were no complaints from horsepeople or horseplayers.

 

I couldn’t help but think about that a few weeks ago when trainer Sam Schillaci and his horse Gardys Legacy A became international news, fodder for late night talk show hosts and comedians, and the target of animal rights groups. None of it should have happened.

Gardys Legacy A won the first race at Northfield Park on Sept. 3, 2023, and then tested positive for methamphetamine. As of press time, the level apparently hasn’t been made public—even trainer Sam Schillaci says he hasn’t been told the number—but it’s widely assumed to be very small, suggesting that the positive test is one of a burgeoning number of contamination cases in Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing whose prosecutions have ruined reputations and—in some cases—careers in pursuit of presenting “clean” racing that the public can trust.

It strains credulity to believe that most, if not all, of these trainers administered meth to their horses. “No trainer in their right mind would do that,” says Schillaci, a comment I’ve also heard from two racetrack veterinarians. And the published amounts detected thus far have been so small as to virtually guarantee that the substance, no matter how it got into the horse’s system, had absolutely no effect upon its performance. But we’re living in a regulatory world that is increasingly relying on zero-tolerance policies that sell the belief that we, as an industry, are serious about “cleaning up the game.” I would argue that we are, ironically, bringing it down instead.

 

To wit: Schillaci was dealt a one-year suspension and assessed a $1,000 fine. That’s severe, and, to many, not right. But we live in a world where hot takes trump logic and analysis, and when the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals put out a press release citing the matter and calling for Schillaci to be banned for life, the matter went global.

TMZ and Deadspin milked it for all it was worth. The Guardian (London) ran with it. Men’s Journal and Yahoo! News did, too. And it made Saturday Night Live as part of the “Weekend Update” segment, with cast member/“anchorman” Colin Jost—with a silhouette of the State of Ohio illuminated behind him—intoning that “A racehorse in Ohio which had won a race earlier in the day later tested positive for meth. Ohio, where you have to test horses for meth.”

It was funny, sure, but it’s not a good look—or a fair one—for Ohio or for horse racing. And it was self-inflicted. We got tough on crime by labeling a guy—who common sense suggests is innocent—a criminal, and now folks who don’t know better think we’re corrupt and inhumane and want nothing to do with us. Our pledge to deliver clean racing is a noble one. Our delivery, however, is sometimes flawed.

The problem with zero- or near-zero-tolerance policies, like the one I implemented at Chester, is that they remove the obligation and the burden to think from the governing body or authority. They eliminate context from the situation, which runs counter to how law actually works—or should work, anyway—in the real world. They send a message, but it’s often the wrong one. We can and should do better.

I’m not trying to bash the Ohio State Racing Commission, which I think does a good job under trying circumstances. This could have happened in any jurisdiction. And for those who read this column and conclude that the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) will solve everything, you might want to Google “John Pimental HIWU meth positive.” A warning. It’s not pretty.

Is it more important to protect the innocent or punish the guilty? I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately.

 

Mike Tanner

 

The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the USTA. To comment on this column, email us at
readerforum@ustrotting.com.

 

 

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