Day At The Track

Andrew Cohen: The conspiracy of silence

12:41 AM 19 Aug 2010 NZST
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Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen

Referring to what he called "the Lou Pena disaster,"Hall of Famer Stan Bergstein last month called upon harness racing officials and researchers to catch up in knowledge and science to "what some horseman know." And he warned that all industry employees will be out of work forever unless trainers, drivers, caretakers and owners "unite to stop" the unlawful and unfair drugging of horses.

Good for him for speaking up and speaking out. At 86 and after a terrible year, he's clearly still got hops.

But Bergstein also seemed to suggest in his recent piece in the Canadian Sportsman that the public airing and discussion of the Pena controversy is harmful to the sport. And that's a terribly unproductive message to send to his legions of fans and friends around the world. If the history of the United States teaches us anything it is, to quote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, that "sunshine is the best disinfectant." Indeed, the road to salvation in harness racing isn't paved with more conspiracies of silence and denial; it's paved with more candor, truth and transparency.

Here's what Bergstein wrote: "No one yet knows whether that is true, but like oil seeping across the Gulf, whispers and outrage and fury have spread through the vast and instant communication links available to all today. Bloggers are unburdening themselves, pro and con, on Lou Pena, and as the damage reaches the mainstream press, as it surely will, new fans will be lost along with old ones, and owners and breeders will feel the crushing weight of the loss."

We are a curious band of brothers and sisters in harness racing. We are proud and passionate about what we do but at the same time woefully insecure about it. Like every family, we have plenty of secrets we don't want to leak out onto the larger world. We are patients who don't want to go to the doctor for fear that we won't like the taste of the medicine-and so we become sicker every day. We say to that outside world: leave us alone, we can handle things, but of course we can't. Anyone who has followed the sad story of harness racing in New Jersey knows that by now.

It seems to me the "crushing" loss Bergstein is worried about already has occurred. The horse, I have to say here, has already left the barn. It's true that secrets within harness racing can no longer be squashed as easily as they once could be. But it's also true that once harness racing routinely brought tens of thousands of fans to the larger tracks each night. The dirty truths about harness racing-as eternal as Goshen and Messenger-- didn't push away these fans. The passivity and lack of courage from among our leaders, for decade upon decade, did. We lost our opportunity to effectively change with the times precisely because we eternally tried to push our dirt under the rug so we wouldn't have to face it. We didn't make tough choices because there was no outside pressure to do so.

Bergstein is not alone. His concerns were echoed in the Hoosier Horse Review by my friend Tim Konkle. In the June issue, he wrote of the local racing scandal there: "Unsubstantiated stories are horrible for Indiana's harness racing industry and to date, that's all I'm hearing. Rumors are all I'm hearing and bad ones at that. People that report or even repeat stories that reflect negatively on our industry need to understand something: there are no secrets in harness racing. We are the worst secret keepers I know of. We also have our fair share of people who will tell lies just to promote their personal agenda. I mean really, it's like in the world outside harness racing so what makes anyone think it is different within our industry."

To that I can only say this. It doesn't matter to me who within the harness world speaks the truth. So long as his or her voice is heard. The established harness media won't necessarily facilitate this. There are only a handful of reporters covering our sport who have the context, the contacts and the courage to expose the malevolent things that we do to one another in our industry. Most of the publishers are afraid to death of their advertisers-even when there advertisers make public statements about the need to better clean up the sport. Harness racing needs a Woodward and Bernstein almost as much as it needs gaming at the Meadowlands and slots at the glorious Red Mile in Lexington.

The reason our Founding Fathers made the First Amendment first is because they believed that from its protection of a vigorous press all other democratic values would flow. The same is true in our sport. The only chance the sport has of breaking through to the other side-fiscal viability, impeccable integrity, future growth-is by the earnest and honest airing of candid views, good or bad, about where we are and where we need to be. And even if you don't believe all that I'd say: how about we try it my way for a generation, if we last that long, and see if we aren't all better off?

News and Notes

The six-months-and-counting saga of the corporate fraud trial of David Brooks, the titular king of harness owners, rolls on. His jurors in Central Islip, Long Island, New York, now are in their second week of deliberations, the great Stephen Colbert brilliantly parodied him on Comedy Central, and this week came word that Brooks' brother, Jeffrey, who now runs the stable we all know as Bulletproof Enterprises, is at the center of a jury tampering investigation. Did I happen to mention that most of the larger harness racing jurisdictions in the United States now are again allowing the Brooks Brothers to compete in the harness industry despite the fact that Bulletproof and Company have been suspended by the Ontario Racing Commission?...

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Alpha Dog of the Week - David H. Brooks

.. The yearling sales season is just about upon us and I'm curious to know from y'all whether you are more or less inclined this year to invest in a yearling. Has the tumult in New Jersey made you more hesitant? Have the purses at Yonkers made you less hesitant? Do you feel differently this Labor Day about the industry than you did last year at this time? I am going to be asking these questions of some folks at the large breeding operations in the next few weeks but wanted to get your views, too.

Andrew COHEN

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