On the afternoon of March 1, a horse van carrying three Standardbreds from a private training center entered to race that evening at Meadowlands racetrack pulled into a service area along the New Jersey Turnpike. A man went into the back of the van and emerged a few minutes later with a paper bag that he tossed into a nearby trash container.
The brief “rest stop” was witnessed by Brice Cote, a former detective with the New Jersey State Police's Racetrack Unit who now works for Meadowlands owner Jeffrey Gural as head of track security. Cote, who has a Standardbred racing background, had his suspicions about the occupants of the vehicle and decided to tail them that afternoon. He retrieved the paper bag from the trash and discovered used syringes inside that he later found out had been filled with therapeutic drugs permitted for training but not legal on race day.
The three horses – Abelard Hanover, Twinscape, and Doin Time Together – were scratched from that night's program. Two trainers, Marvin Callahan (who emerged from inside the van with the paper bag) and Alvin Callahan, were told by track management they were no longer welcome to race at Meadowlands. The Callahans joined a growing list of horsemen that have been kicked off the grounds for suspected cheating.
Gural took swift and decisive action in this and previous cases because, as he puts it, “I didn't spend $100 million to provide a place for dishonest people to race horses.” I spoke with Gural last week after a bomb was dropped on the Thoroughbred racing industry by the radical animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
PETA did the same thing as Gural's head of security: surveillance. The organization planted a female employee inside the barn of Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen, equipped her with a high-tech hidden camera for four months, and compiled video tape and notes that were then brought to New York Times reporter Joe Drape. Drape's article and PETA's 9 1⁄2-minute videotape have turned the industry on its ear.
We can argue about whether or not the video or notes confirm “cruelty,” as PETA has charged in formal complaints to state and federal officials. We can argue about whether PETA, while wanting ethical treatment of animals, was unethical in its undercover investigation and compilation from four months of video of a nine-and-a-half-minute tape.
I think we can all agree this was a devastating development that has brought the biggest public relations challenge horse racing has seen in a very long time. Charges of animal cruelty and cheating could bring the sport to its knees.
I don't know how Jeff Gural feels about animal welfare issues, though it is obvious he detests cheating. I asked him about Asmussen, who was barely visible in the PETA video, playing second fiddle to Scott Blasi, the stable's chief assistant. Blasi, who was relieved of his duties two days after publication of the New York Times story, comes across in the video as a potty-mouthed lout who bragged about unethical or illegal activities, unaware every word he was saying could wind up on Youtube.
What, I asked Gural, would you do about Steve Asmussen?
“I'd throw the guy out, 100 percent,” he said. “I wouldn't even think twice about it.”
Thoroughbred racing has no one like Gural, no one who is willing to be swift and decisive in looking out for the best interests of the game.
Instead, we get packaged statements from weak-kneed organizations and their hand-wringing leaders who are less worried about the consequences of doing nothing and more worried about overreacting, hoping against hope that this whole sordid mess will go away quietly.
There were, after all, no allegations of illegal doping. But what came across on this edited PETA video is a culture – at least in one very high-profile stable – that it's okay to load horses up on medication and continue to train and race them when rest would be a better solution. That it's okay to try and fool the state veterinarian by masking a horse's lameness to get past a pre-race examination. That it's okay to use an electrical stimulating device on a horse that is as illegal as it is inhumane.
That's all hearsay, right? It's evidence from an extremist group with an agenda and it would never hold up in a court of law.
But what about the court of public opinion?
“The perception of our sport is so negative,” Gural said. “I think we had driven all the honest people out of harness racing. At least that's what people think.”
Gural's actions, showing the door to drivers and trainers he is convinced are either cheating or dishonest, has brought life back to a dying game – at least at his track. Unfortunately, horsemen run off by Meadowlands are welcomed with open arms elsewhere.
Gural is not waiting for a racing commission to take action on cheaters, nor allowing them to control all the drug testing. To compete at the Meadowlands, trainers have to sign an agreement that allows the track to conduct out of competition testing, even if the horses are stabled at private, off-track facilities. Samples are sent to the best labs in the world, not those designated by the state's racing commission. The discovery of sky-high levels of performance enhancing cobalt by the Hong Kong Jockey Club's testing lab led to several private property ejections of Meadowlands trainers. “If you race in New Jersey you know exactly what they are testing for,” he said, “but if I send a sample to Hong Kong, they have no idea.”
Gural is trying to show the horsemen that it's his track, his game – not theirs.
“The thought that a guy would have the nerve to pull over in a rest stop and do that to his horses on the way to the track is really something,” Gural said, “and he's probably not the only one doing that. But I think I've got these guys on the run.”
You would think someone in Thoroughbred racing would have noticed what Gural has been doing, but not a single racetrack executive has called to ask him about it. Not one.
“It's very disappointing,” he said.
So, in the wake of the PETA disclosures, as racing commissions conduct their investigations and industry organizations craft position statements and express concerns, the sport is left cruelly twisting in the wind. This is the price we pay for having no structure, no leadership, no strong-willed men and women of principle willing to take a stand.
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