Day At The Track

Brett Sturman - The witch trial of Lou Pena

12:24 AM 15 Jun 2010 NZST
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As quoted word for word from the Wikipedia entry for The Salem Witch Trials: The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings before local magistrates followed by county court of trials to prosecute people accused of witchcraft in Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex counties of colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693.

The episode has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of religious extremism, false accusations, lapses in due process, and governmental intrusion on individual liberties

Fast forwarding to current day, the witches have disappeared, but not the witch hunt. Both racing officials and columnists are exerting tremendous time and energy to prove that leading 2010 Meadowlands trainer Lou Pena is using illegal and illicit substances to enhance the performance of his stable.

Hysteria has taken over, and nearly all accusations made against Pena to date have been unfounded, unsubstantiated, and made with reckless abandonment. Pena is the target of mean spirited personal attacks, his reputation is under unfair repeated assault, and it won't stop until he is torn down.

The hypocrisy is astounding. And here is the dirty little secret that those leading the mob with their pitchforks have failed to mention.

The dirty little secret is that all of the usual suspects at the Meadowlands have had at least one run-in with a major substance violation at some point in their careers. In fact, out of next thirteen trainers in line after Pena in the current Meadowlands trainer standings (listed by wins as of June 11), that nine out of those thirteen trainers have had a post-race positive test violation, just since the last time Pena had one!

To be fair and give both sides, Pena had eight post-race positive test violations between 2002 and April of 2006. However, since that time, he has had zero. And to re-iterate, between April 2006 and today, nine different trainers have had at least one of their horses test positive post-race, while Pena has had zero.

The Burke stable, which now lists Ron Burke as the trainer, had two positive post-race tests in December of 2006 and April of 2007 when father Mickey was "officially" listed as the trainer of record.

Currently third in the Meadowlands, trainer Mark Kesmodel is in the midst of serving a 75 day suspension for his positive post-race test result in April of this year at Freehold. He followed that up just a month later with another post-race positive at Chester. I find it interesting that since the start of the Pena witch hunt, I have not heard a single bad word uttered about Kesmodel.

Julie Miller sits at fourth in the Meadowlands standings, and is someone who is widely respected. She is also the trainer from whom the since turned Invitational horse Real Joke was claimed away from at the beginning of May. Just last fall, Miller had a post-race positive test.

Peter Kleinhans is a fresh face to the upper echelon of the trainer standings at the Meadowlands, and although he has not had a post-race positive test since 1988, is one that warrants a bit of a deeper look into. Kleinhans, despite being ranked sixth in total number of wins, is actually the leading trainer when ranked by win percentage. Whereas Pena is winning at 26%, Kleinhans is winning at a 31% clip.

This is notable for a number of reasons. One could make the case that Kleinhans' rise to the top of the Meadowlands trainer standings closely parallels that of Pena's. Having never been known as an elite Meadowlands trainer, Kleinhans wrote in the comment section of a recent column regarding Lou Pena on Harnesslink.com that "The only reason I have good stats is because I have good horses; I also think I do a solid job with them."

Now, this is a sound and seemingly logical explanation for Kleinhans; no question. But when Pena - where it is undeniable that he is working with better stock here, than he was in California - said essentially the same thing in an interview a couple weeks ago, it fell on deaf ears.

From there, the list of culprits who have had at least one post-race positive test (again, only since Pena's last one), goes on and on. Nat Varty, Joe Anderson, Josh Green, Ken Rucker, Casie Coleman, and Carmine Fusco are all atop the trainer standings at the Meadowlands, and all of them have a past that is being overshadowed by the attempt to bring down Pena. Other trainers outside the top 15 that have had at least one post-race positive test (and in some cases, violations far worse) more recently than Pena include notables such as Trond Smedshammer, Jimmy Takter, Robin Schadt and Linda Toscano.

Taking a look above at the history of all trainers - not just Pena - it almost appears as if there is an unwritten rule amongst trainers that you can cheat, but just don't cheat too much. You can win by two lengths, but just don't win by six. You can win in 1:50, but don't win in 1:49. Trainer Jordan Rubin, who is 25th in wins at the Meadowlands this year, told the New Jersey-based Star Ledger newspaper in a 2001 interview, "Everyone's doing something. Would you go to a gunfight with a knife? I don't think so."

Those who openly and publicly accuse Pena of witchcraft and illegal activity, allude to a magic and undetectable substance that he must be using. There are a couple faults with that line of thinking.

First, is that Lou Pena has a sixth grade education, as he stated here in a prior interview. Based on that alone, it is unimaginable to think that Pena could have now been transformed into some world renowned chemist. And if you argue that Pena is obtaining the undetectable magic heroin from another source, could he really be the only person in the entire world that knows about it and has access to it? Does Pena really have the best kept secret in the country going right now? It seems highly unlikely, and even equine testing expert Phil Lorimer said in 2001 (same article referenced in the Rubin quote), "It's voodoo medicine that exists only in people's minds."

Another possibility (and the far likelier one, if you believe Pena is performing something illegal) - is that he is simply using a substance already in use by other trainers - only he is using it more efficiently and effectively than his peers. The "edge" he has, might not be all that foreign to other Meadowlands trainers. At this stage, it has to be conceded that "chemistry" plays some type of role in "horsemanship." And if Pena is the best at horsemanship as it is defined today at the Meadowlands, then in an odd way, he could almost be admired.

If that possibility doesn't do it for you either, then it really leaves only one other possible explanation for the wild success.

Like it or not, Lou Pena just might be innocent altogether.

This isn't colonial Massachusetts in 1692. This is 2010, and this is the greatest country in the world. For any person in this day and age to be presumed guilty until proven guilty such as Pena is - now that is the real injustice.

Brett STURMAN is a lead analyst, and oversee's all day to day operations at the harness racing handicapping website, Hometrackadvantage.com. You can find more analysis and selections by visiting Home Track Advantage.

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