It must be disheartening at times to be an honest Thoroughbred owner or trainer, especially one that happens to race in Pennsylvania.
It's bad enough, as we learned last week in the federal trial of trainer Murray Rojas, that widespread and systematic cheating has been going on at Penn National racecourse in Grantville, Pa. for more than a decade.
Making matters worse is the financial support provided to Rojas by the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association through a legal defense fund the horsemen's organization established last year. The Pennsylvania HBPA, the representative horseman's organization at Penn National, also helped pay her legal fees.
This adds insult to injury.
Think about it for a minute: The local and National HBPA helped pay the attorneys for a trainer accused on 21 felony counts related to drugging horses illegally on race day and convicted on 14 of those charges. A jury said this criminal activity went on from January 2002 through September 2014.
The jury voted not guilty on seven counts of wire fraud, but guilty on 14 counts of misbranding and conspiracy to misbrand. Attorneys for Rojas had previously moved to have the misbranding charges thrown out, but a pre-trial order from Judge Sylvia Rambo denied the motion. Rojas plans to appeal the conviction.
The evidence in the case was abundant. Internal records at veterinary practices run by Drs. Kevin Brophy and Fernando Motta showed Rojas requested race day treatments of therapeutic drugs in violation of Pennsylvania rules and regulations. Treatments were performed by veterinarians Brophy, Motta, Christopher Korte and Renee Nodine, who then had invoices backdated and racing commission treatment records falsified to avoid detection. The four veterinarians pleaded guilty in April 2015 to illegally administering drugs to horses and cooperated with the prosecution.
This was not a case built around a positive test resulting from accidental contamination of a human drug or a picogram overage of a therapeutic medication. It was ongoing, organized cheating – gaming the system at the expense of honest owners and trainers and sticking up the middle finger in the face of horseplayers.
So why on earth would the National HBPA and its Pennsylvania affiliate put up a nickel to defend Rojas?
During a break in the proceedings last Tuesday, Todd Mostoller, the Pennsylvania HBPA's executive director, told me his organization helped pay for the defense over a concern that the next time a trainer gets a bad test for a minor overage of a therapeutic drug, he or she will wind up in federal court facing a felony charge.
That argument is preposterous scaremongering, falsely setting the federal government up as a bogeyman.
To compare a minor drug overage to the cesspool of cheating and corruption at Penn National indicates how grossly out of touch with reality Mostoller and his associate at the National HBPA, chief executive officer Eric Hamelback, have become.
Without the FBI investigation that began more than five years ago, we would know nothing about the rancid activities that trainer Stephanie Beattie, an admitted cheater who became an FBI informant, described under oath during the Rojas trial. We would not know how some veterinarians brazenly broke the rules because they knew which drugs were being tested for and which ones were not at the state's laboratory. We would not know about the corruption in the racing office and the clocker's stand.
The federal government brings with it immense subpoena powers and has the means to get people to talk in ways racing commission investigators or local law enforcement cannot.
I understand why enablers like Mostoller and Hamelback rejoiced when the jury found Rojas not guilty on seven counts of wire fraud and conspiracy. They are hoping the FBI will turn tail and let horse racing return to policing itself. They must believe the status quo was working just fine before the feds showed up. And maybe it was, for the cheaters and crooks, but not for honest horsemen, and certainly not for the betting public. This is a shameful chapter in the history of the HBPA.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National HBPA authored the following response to this piece:
The National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and Pennsylvania HBPA support clean racing in our sport. Period. Despite what Mr. Paulick writes on his website, Pennsylvania HBPA enacted sweeping changes at Penn National Racetrack years ago. July 11, 2017 will mark the sixth anniversary since the organization became the first in the nation to ban veterinarians from treatment stalls. They also mandated that only independent, third parties can administer race day treatments. These practices have become the national standard.
The National Owner and Trainer Legal Defense Fund, the Pennsylvania HBPA, as well as other HBPA affiliates, provided legal support for thoroughbred trainer Murray Rojas because they strongly believe the federal Department of Justice overreached on what is clearly a state regulatory issue.
The court correctly found Ms. Rojas not guilty of charges related to this attempt to set a new legal precedent. We also take issue with how the federal government applies unlimited resources against a member who is charged with a crime and brings them to the brink of bankruptcy. We support the ability of our membership to properly defend themselves in the court of law, and we respect the ultimate decision of the court.
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