Investigative Reporting a Positive Force for Change in Racing Industry
The following was presented by Ray Paulick at the 40th annual Global Symposium on Racing & Gaming in Tucson, Ariz., during a panel entitled “Muckraking Journalism as a Positive Force – the Second Annual Presentation of the Stan Bergstein Writing Award.”
Anyone who’s watched 60 Minutes over the years understands the power of investigative reporting. If you were involved in some kind of scam, some wrongdoing, the last person you wanted to see walking into your business was Mike Wallace with a camera crew.
But 60 Minutes doesn’t have a monopoly on this type of journalism. Back in 1978, when I was an editorial assistant at the Field Newspaper Syndicate in Chicago, which was then part of the Sun-Times and Daily News family, the Sun-Times pulled off one of the great undercover sting operations of all time.
Here’s what happened.
There was an enterprising reporter named Pam Zekman, who had previously worked across the street from the Sun-Times at the Chicago Tribune. While she was a reporter at the Trib, she heard from a lot of sources who ran small businesses – mostly bars and restaurants – about corruption by government workers.
Imagine that. Corruption in Chicago.
The problem is, whenever Pam pushed her sources to name names, they pulled back, fearful of retribution from these government workers who could put them out of business. So she went to her bosses at the Tribune and said, “I want to buy a bar and find out, first hand, how deep this corruption runs.”
The Tribune, a conservative paper, didn’t want go to there.
So Pam quit the Trib and moved over to the Sun-Times, where she made the same pitch. Jim Hoge, the Sun-Times chief editor, liked the idea. So, working in conjunction with a watchdog organization called the Better Government Association, the Sun-Times actually went out and bought a bar. It was run down and seedy. There were exposed electrical wires, bad plumbing, a colony of roaches and rats in the basement. To get licensed and to operate, the bar had to get approval from a long list of city and state inspectors.
They did some remodeling to this place, which they named the Mirage Tavern. Behind the bar, for example, they built a hideaway with a small hole in the wall, allowing a Sun-Times photographer the opportunity to take pictures of anything that went on inside. But they left all of the problems in place that city and state inspectors should have required be fixed.
￼Pam and some other Sun-Times reporters, along with members of the Better Government Association, found out very quickly that “business by bribe” was common practice in Chicago. With the help of a man who introduced himself to them as “Mr. Fixit,” they learned that envelopes with as little as $10 a week could convince fire, plumbing and building inspectors, along with liquor and food license officials, to look the other way.
It was all documented in a 25-part series that absolutely gripped Chicago during the winter of 1978.
The Mirage Tavern investigative series sold a lot of papers and it nearly won the paper a Pulitzer Prize – that honor was taken away over concerns that the reporters entrapped the corrupt government officials, something that Jim Hoge, the editor who oversaw the project, vehemently denied 35 years later, saying that lawyers gave very specific advice to the reporters on how to avoid entrapping suspects. “I don’t think the reporting ever crossed that ethical line,” he told a reporter earlier this year.
“I think the Sun-Times, its editors and reporters who were involved, ought to be forever proud of the Mirage project,” Hoge said.
The bottom line wasn’t selling papers or winning awards. It was changing a corrupt way of doing business.
This series led to significant changes in Chicago, the state of Illinois and throughout the country, since 60 Minutes also focused on the Mirage Tavern. People were suspended, fired, or indicted. Oversight was revised. The state tax bureau even set up something it called the “Mirage Audit Unit” to catch cash-based businesses that were cheating on taxes.
Those of us familiar with Illinois politics, however, know it didn’t end corruption. Four of the last seven Illinois governors have gone to jail.
Can you imagine setting up a similar sting in horse racing? Would the Mirage Racing Stable be able to bust some of the people peddling performance-enhancing substances on our backstretches. Or would the Mirage Bloodstock Agency catch trainers demanding kickbacks on horses they buy for their clients?
Let’s look at horse racing and some actual events that changed the way the business operates.
In 1999, there was a horse called Behrens, who came into the Breeders’ Cup Classic as the favorite after four wins and four seconds in eight starts. The previous year he didn’t win a single race. The late 1990s was – for horse racing – the equivalent of the steroids era in baseball. Except in horse racing it was milkshakes, a proven way ￼of enhancing performance, and there was no testing being done to see if trainers were manipulating total carbon dioxide levels of horses. The higher the TCO2 level, the less amount of fatigue a horse would feel. This was going on at the time, and it was not isolated to a few trainers.
Behrens was stabled 90 minutes north of Gulfstream Park, where the 1999 Breeders’ Cup was held, and his trainer, Jim Bond, had the luxury of shipping him in on the afternoon of the event.
Another trainer, Michael Dickinson, had a longshot in the Classic, but he didn’t like the fact that the Breeders’ Cup Classic favorite was under no surveillance or security up until a few hours before the race. On his own, Dickinson hired a couple of private investigators to do what Breeders’ Cup was not doing: watch over the horses. The first private investigator monitored every move Behrens made at Payson Park that morning until it was time to get on the horse van for Gulfstream. He followed the van closely to the track – too closely said trainer Bond, who would later say the private eye tried to run the horse van off the road. The second investigator, holding a video camera, stood near the Gulfstream Park stall of another horse in the Classic.
This wasn’t investigative reporting. Truth is, in 1999, no racing reporters – myself included – seemed the least bit concerned that there might be cheating going on. So Dickinson took things into his own hands.
Behrens finished seventh in the Classic, by far his worst race of the year, though we have no way of knowing if it was because his previous performances may have been enhanced. Dickinson’s horse, incidentally, finished last.
The most important thing to come out of this was the fact that the Breeders’ Cup adopted new rules the following year requiring horses to be on the grounds at least 24 hours before their race. That requirement has since been extended to 72 hours and Breeders’ Cup security is now the gold standard for American racing.
Again, the end result of this was changing how business was conducted.
Let’s fast forward to 2012 and the controversial series in the New York Times: Death and Disarray at America’s Racetracks, written by racing writer Joe Drape and Walt Bogdanich, a former 60 Minutes producer who’d won three Pulitzer Prizes. Drape had done some reporting on medication issues, and really I think deserves credit for being the first horse racing writer to begin seriously examining some of the industry’s problems involving doping.
Bogdanich called Drape’s previous work “sniper shots” and said, “We need an atomic bomb.” He helped do the architecture on how to gather and compile the data that went into that series.
￼When the first part was published in March of last year, the initial reaction was “how dare they?” There were knee-jerk stories in trade publications trying to pick apart some of the numbers compiled for the series, but when you start arguing whether it’s 24 horses a week that are dying at our racetracks or it’s 15 or 18 or 20, you’re not going to win the argument.
The front-page series touched a nerve, and not just with people who considered themselves racing fans. It injected into the mainstream consciousness of America some of the wrongdoing within our industry. And for change to happen, you have to first make the public aware.
What happened next was reform. In New Mexico, which got much of the focus of part one of the series, there was a shake-up at the racing commission. Tougher rules were adopted. The state legislature authorized more money be spent on security and drug testing.
Make no mistake: there was a serious problem. Let me remind you that in May 2012, just two months after the story ran, Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico held futurity trials. Of the 25 races run, eight of the winners – eight of them – tested positive for dermorphin, also known as frog juice, one of the most dangerous drugs you can give a horse. That is an epidemic of cheating.
The trainers that were nailed got stiff penalties. One was suspended 21 years. Another, AQHA champion trainer John Bassett, got 10 years. This would not have happened were it not for the New York Times.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had already called for a Task Force to look into why so many horses were dying at Aqueduct in the winter of 2012. In the light of the New York Times articles, that Task Force could not afford to brush details under the rug. Its report later that year was stunning and revealing in its detailing on how pervasive so-called therapeutic medications had become. New York regulators heeded the call to tighten restrictions on these drugs, and now the rest of the mid-Atlantic and much of the rest of the country are getting on board. As NYRA CEO Chris Kay said yesterday, the number of horse fatalities at NYRA tracks has declined dramatically.
That is the positive force of investigative journalism.
We are seeing federal indictments in Pennsylvania, where trainers were led out in handcuffs. The legislature there may disband the racing commission entirely and form a new regulatory body. I am getting reports of an investigation being conducted by the criminal division of the Food and Drug Administration and local authorities at a Midwestern harness track that involve wiretaps, illegal drugging, and a betting ring. Florida’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering is under the microscope by state politicians. This is all happening in the wake of critical, investigative reporting.
I don’t think I can emphasize this enough. The reason for this reporting is to change the culture when it needs change.
Sometimes you don’t know if reporting on an issue has made a difference. Let’s look at the Bob Baffert situation in California. From November 2011 until March 2013, at least seven horses in his barn at Hollywood Park died from some internal issue – not a broken leg but heart attacks, internal hemorrhage, whatever. Three publications that became aware of these extraordinary numbers – the New York Times, Blood-Horse, and Paulick Report – filed open records requests, examining necropsy reports of deaths, and all three publications published a story on April 10 of this year, coinciding with a California Horse Racing Board meeting where sudden deaths were discussed. Since those reports were published, Baffert hasn’t lost a single horse to sudden death. Seven deaths in 16 months before stories were published. Zero deaths in the eight months since then.
Is that a coincidence? I don’t think we’ll ever know. But I do think, without the pressure from the media, the CHRB – which in April was denying that a problem existed – would not have conducted as thorough an investigation as it did.
Those of us who do this aren’t in it to cause trouble or win awards or make friends in the industry. We are trying to make change.