Lou Pena fever ruining 'The Belmont Stakes'

03:57 AM 06 Jun 2012 NZST
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When Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, I'll Have Another, moves down the block this Wednesday from Barn 9 at Belmont Park to Barn 2, -- the displaced horses detention camp and temporary home for alleged equine dope addicts -- he will arrive with a lot of excess baggage and it looks like a lot of harness racing decay is starting to seep out of its crypt and seep into the Sport of Kings.

Poor guy. Nature didn't even provide him with arms and hands with which to carry that baggage. Of course this is "baggage" in the figurative sense, but it's so damned heavy and bothersome that one is almost fooled into thinking the this heroic thoroughbred, might actually be a standardbred in disguise. Trotters and pacers have been bothered by these detention dumps for decades, and it looks like the aging crypt of harness racing decay is beginning to leak out and onto the Sport of Kings.

I'll Have Another's eviction, from Barn 9, and the displacement of all the horses in the Belmont Stakes, is the work of the The New York State Racing and Wagering Board, (NYSRWB), and what should have been an exciting race -- a long-awaited Triple Crown winner - has been turned instead into a Checkpoint Charlie where every horse is, for all intents and purposes, a prisoner. Notwithstanding that anthropomorphic analogy, anything that intentionally disrupts the world of the intellectually limited racehorse is a kind of imprisonment.

Detention barns are designed to prevent anyone from tampering with the horse for a day or two, but the outrageously annoying logistics of getting one's horse to and from a detention barn, and the unfamiliarity of the detention barn itself, often changes the eventual outcome of the race more than any drug. In other words, by trying to ensure a fair race, detention barns actually create unfair races. Some might argue that it's the other way around. Whichever side of the argument you're on, the unyielding truth is that detention barns are disturbing to the horse, and anyone who doesn't agree with that needs to bone up on their knowledge of the equine brain and pharmacology.

The more recent drug scandals in harness racing involve red blood cell enhancing drugs that are used weeks out from a race, not hours or days or minutes. What is the sense of putting horses in jail for something that hasn't happened yet? If one of the detainees gets a positive test, is he a flight risk? The sheer stupidity of the detention barn defies all logic. In the past, when someone had a champion horse, they hired a night watchman. and 50,000 people came out to see the race. Now what have you got? Folsom Prison for horses on one side of the track and 500 fans on the other side. Doesn't anybody see this?

This time, the detention barn for the Belmont Stakes is an insufferable seventy-six hour stretch. Come on! That's hard time! Some of the world's greatest thoroughbred sophomores will be watched around the clock by cameras and binoculars and guys with clipboards -- that's totally unacceptable. These touchy creatures will be bothered at every turn -- as will their trainers and grooms -- by totally absurd and blatantly draconian changes in their routines. Some of the horses will be greatly upset by these strange surroundings. The horses who aren't perturbed by this gain an unfair advantage. Detention barns "drug" horses in a subliminal way that's far beyond the understanding of the wardens who erect and advocate for their use.

Horses are creatures of habit and when it comes down to a big time shot at a Triple Crown winner -- something that would be very good for racing right about now -- the last thing you need to do is screw up the precarious reality of what a horse perceives as its world. It's almost as though the people who govern the racing in New York don't want this horse to win. Could that be true? Is it possible that the media has so distorted and tarnished this animal's reputation that if he happens to win the Triple Crown, he will be the Pete Rose or Barry Bonds of horse racing? Will the daily Racing Form have to start using asterisks? It will never happen, but don't think for one second that some idiot won't suggest it and say that "it's good for the industry."

The NYRA - a kind of advocacy group for thoroughbred horses and horsemen - claims that this is not their idea and they were "blindsided' by the NYSRWB. Are they telling the truth or they simply rolling over? It looks they're rolling over - and that hardly ever happens.

You see, the NYRA is made up of Clause and Sunny Von Bulow types who understand that racing should be about the majesty and splendor of a beautiful racehorse in motion. They understand that racing is all about prestige and image. They carefully avoid or erase scandal and they diligently try to preserve the glamorous luster of the Sport of Kings.

But the other guys, the ones over at the NYSRWB, they're the gritty gumshoes; the hard-bitten, tough as nails, tenderloin district Damon Runyons who don't care who the hell you are, baby, are or how much money you have, sweetheart - or at least that's how they are presenting themselves as far as this year's Belmont Stakes is concerned.

When you match one group up against the other, it's actually difficult to figure out which ones are the good guys and which ones are the bad guys. Perhaps each is a little of both, and it's apparent, at least it is to this writer, that the two groups don't particularly like each other.

Since this Hatfields versus the Vanderbilts feud has been going on for so long, why the sudden push to put stakes horses into a 76-hour detention barn?

The reason is very simple. The tail gunners over at the NYSRWB are so shell-shocked by the recent events involving the rumored-to-be-true horse doping crimes of a harness racing trainer named Lou Pena over at Empire City Yonkers Raceway that they are now living in the fog of a war - the war they are now raging against Lou Pena. They have to look like they are doing something, right? It's D-Day but these guys are storming the coast of California. They're deranged Japanese pilots who are bombing Pearl Bailey. It's a train wreck.

Keep in mind that no horse trained by Pena has ever had a drug positive post race test in New York, and as far as rules and regulations go, Pena is really only guilty of wining too many races. So, with the shoulder-shrugging assumption that Pena has got to be undeniably and reliably drugging his horses, and in a sense admitting that they themselves are just too ill equipped to figure out what drug Lou Pena might be using, a troublesome loophole was used to kick him out of Empire City Yonkers Raceway. The loophole in question is an antiquated rule that when actually enforced makes Pena sound really nasty, but if you know anything about conditioning a standardbred racehorse, the rule is stupid, obsolete and frankly, detrimental to the well-being of the animal. But why should they care about that? They're just cops walking the beat who keep the streets of horse racing clean for both man and beast.

Not content to lay down and die, Lou Pena got a lawyer and the cops had to let him back in. But then the cops found that aforementioned loophole to kick him back out - and now the whole thing is in court and it's a total mess and a complete embarrassment to both thoroughbred and standardbred racing. It's a complete pile of pure crap wherein all attempts to clean up racing serve only to further destroy it. If the tactic they are using to get rid of Pena does the trick, the harness racing industry in New York will have to close up shop because many of the trainers - and let's use a nice round number like 100% - will have to be asked to leave as well. Yes. It's true. If a trainer sprinkles a handful of Murray's Miraculous Minerals and Electrolytes onto his horse's feed the day before a race or even 47 hours before a race, he is guilty of violating the 48-hour rule. Murray's Miraculous Minerals and Electrolytes are foreign substances as are things like Gastro-Gard and Pepto Bismol and Milk of Magnesia. You might as well close the tack shops because they make very little money selling actual tack.

The nebulous regulation being used to dump Pena dictates that a trainer or veterinarian or even Depak Chopra, cannot administer anything foreign to the horse closer than 48 hours out from a race. The truth, however, especially when the weather gets hot, is that any trainer with half a brain knows that if you follow this dopey rule to the letter, you could end up with a badly messed up horse. It's good horsemanship to administer IV fluids and a small dose of a mild anti-inflammatory a few days (36 hours) prior to a race. These aren't "drugs" -- they're therapeutic medications. Everybody who knows a lick about training -- especially in hot weather -- knows enough to use them. Horses have an annoying habit of not drinking enough water to tolerate the demands racing puts on them. Horses don't know they are going to race tomorrow or the next day. They don't know that they need human help to make ensure that they don't keel over from heat stroke. So keep enforcing that 48-hour rule and let some smart guy invest his money in a horse carcass removal service, because all the tracks will be needing one.

So, how do they know Pena violated the 48-hour rule? They called in all of his veterinary records of course and came up with 1700 times where he violated the rule -- or at least his vets did. It doesn't matter that all the horses got in most cases was highly competent veterinary care. Maybe some got intravenous saline and a few vitamins and a little bute. Even the most nefarious vets -- and there have been a few would not record that he gave a horse a shot of heroin or crystal meth. Be serious! Even the dumbest of trainers -- and there have been busloads of them -- wouldn't write down what he/she gave a horse. Think about the insanity of this -- just think about it.

All this insanity aside, they had Pena and that's all that mattered. But what would happen if they were to call in the vet records of all trainers? Well, the percentage of 48-hour rule violations would be very high -- probably close to 100%. Does this mean that all trainers are horse-drugging thieves? On the contrary. It means that most horsemen know how to keep their horses fit and healthy. A horse who is well hydrated is more likely to die by tripping over the fallen carcass of a horse whose stupid trainer didn't know enough to hydrate his horse with IV fluids when the race day weather forecast predicted 98 degrees with 80% humidity. What idiot does not understand this?

Now vets will have to jury rig their books so as to make it not look like they are in compliance with this 48-hour rule, or trainers will have to start giving the stuff themselves; thereby reinforcing the notion that they all a bunch of no good horse dopers. Is pre-race maintenance the same as horse-doping? Of course not, but some idiot will write about it and show a picture of a sloppily dressed guy holding up an IV bag attached to a horse's carotid vein and all hell will break lose. All real trainers out there know that his is the truth. If you don't know it, you're living in a dream world.

Do some trainers abuse the rule? Of course they do, but if the NYSRWB has 1700 violations on Pena, why aren't they naming the offending substances? Probably because the stuff is totally innocuous, and 48-hour rule contradicts the modern and more enlightened rules wherein the levels of certain medications are tolerated. It's like a town ordinance that reads: "You can never sit on a park bench on Sunday" being contradicted by a simultaneous rule that states: "You can sit on a park bench on Sunday as long as you don't sit for too long." Well? Should you sit or shouldn't you? Seems, it depends on who you are.

This kind of bogus "guilty until rumored to be even more guilty" stuff is exactly what's happening to Triple Crown hopeful, I'll Have Another and his not-so-nefarious-as-they-would-have-you-think trainer, Doug O'Neill. In other words, all the things that are outrageously wrong with harness racing have jumped the fence and mated with the runners. It's pure insanity to harken back to something a trainer may or may not have done in the past when it is in no way pertinent to what he is doing now and why his horse has a shot at the crown.

So, because the people who govern racing over in New York fear their own ability to govern - although they don't seem to be consciously aware of that fact - I'll Have Another will soon find himself in a strange stall and surrounded by strange people. He will not know a moments peace until the Belmont is over and he gets the hell out of that place - if, of course, he can crawl under the barbed wire perimeter and make it past the spotlights and snipers in the watch towers.

Who is really to blame for this POW horse camp fiasco?

Well, one might think the answer is very simple. Obviously some trainers dope their horses and detention barns serve to protect horses and the people who gamble on them. They are also designed, in theory, to protect the honest trainers who have to race against horses with a chemical edge. That sounds pretty valid, right? Well...not so right. Positive tests both in and out of detention barns are relatively rare. Are they rare because these drugs escape detection, or are they rare because these drugs simply don't exist? It depends upon what side of the fence you're sitting. If you just lost your rent money on a bet -- then the horses are all drugged up. If you're an owner and your horse just got beat by a trainer you suspect is using something -- the winning horse was definitely drugged up. If you win $20,000 betting on Lou Pena you simply stop worrying about drugged horses -- for the time being anyway.

One could also say that the racing industry is simply protecting their product, but that doesn't really hold up because as far as horse racing goes, bad press is just bad press. The old, "any press is good press" adage does not apply to the ponies. As far as horse racing goes, good press is great press and anything else is troublesome.

You would need a caravan of buses to carry the people responsible for all this bad press, but who is really to blame for this horror show that now passes for racing? To a lot of people in the know, the sportswriters who know nothing about horse racing and write for major media, are probably most responsible for throwing a monkey wrench into the machine.

As ironic as it sounds, it's becoming quite evident that no one can write about horse racing with any measurable degree of detachment or objectivity unless one has worked in the racing industry as an insider. There is no room for objective journalism because much of it is negative and almost all of it is misinformation. These days, the best media coverage of racing comes from writers who work inside the industry. The mainstream press articles -- the outsiders who still refer to a harness racing sulky as a "buggy" or to harness racing drivers as "jockeys" -- should not be allowed to cover racing because if they can't get the lingo right, how can they get the story right?

To be fair, The New York Times usually gets it right, but for far too long, a couple of New Jersey papers have been mutilating the harness racing industry with reckless accusations and racing coverage that served only to cast a dark shadow over the racing world. If it wasn't bad news, it wasn't reported at all.

Mainstream media sportswriters these days come off as disgruntled gamblers. Everything they write morphs into some kind of demented mission to destroy horse racing. They can't write lovingly about the beauty of a trotter in high gear or a thoroughbred leaping from the gate like a graceful gazelle. No, their own fetid frustrations overwhelm their judgement and sense of fair play.

Nobody sets out to be a horse racing journalist. One day you wake up and find yourself sitting at a computer writing about racing. It's an accident. Nobody who can write really well is going to waste that talent on a subject with such a narrow readership.This writer does it because he's a competent writer and an industry insider who usually stays far away from touchy subjects. He also knows how to educate the punters without sounding too pedantic and smarmy. He also does it because somebody has to do it and that somebody has to know what's really going on -- somebody simply has to get it right.

Here is your perfect example of reckless media at its worst. I'll Have Another has a chance to win the Triple Crown and all the moronic media can talk about these days is Doug O'Neill's "bicarb" or "CO2" positive tests. Stretch and yawn now because if this were a college course, this is the time you'd be downing your can of Red Bull.

Question: Who cares about a couple of stupid bicarb positive tests that Doug O'Neill's horses got back when Charlton Heston was driving them in the Circus Maximus? It's a sickening gimmick played up by dopey writers and justifiably frustrated trainers who can‘t face the fact that they don‘t train or own I‘ll Have Another and they'll never be able to win as many races as one specific rumored-to-be-bad guy. That's all it is. You don't have to dig any deeper than that. It's all about the Lou Pena show. only this time the horse is wearing a saddle and stirrups instead of a harness and sulky. One has to pity this magnificent I'll Have Another, and loathe the way his trainer is being lynched in the media.

Okay, so what did Doug O'Neill, do that was so wrong? Well, if you want to get technical about it, he didn't do anything wrong - or at least nobody proved he himself did anything wrong. What nasty dope did he give his horses? What's this CO2 thing everyone is talking about?

The straight dope on the "dope" he allegedly gave his horses is that it was baking soda - plain old Arm and Hammer baking soda.

See, way back when, in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, some crooked trainer (in harness racing of course) discovered that if you introduced a bottle of Gatorade (any flavor) and about eight ounces of baking soda into a horse's stomach about four or five hours before a race, most horses raced a whole lot better. This is called a "milkshake." Get used to hearing that word because it's the only word you will hear from the press box on Belmont Day. Don't think you're watching a Dairy Queen commercial.

When the milkshake craze started out, only a handful of people knew about the technique and the ingredients. Trainers who never won races before were suddenly winning races like crazy, and no matter how much the labs tested and tested, they couldn't figure out what mysterious drug these new superstar trainers were using.

It got to the point where a lot of people were milk-shaking their horses because they could not compete unless they did. "You couldn't bring a slingshot to a gunfight," was the new racing slogan. But then some idiots (in harness racing of course) got the crazy idea that if 8 ounces of baking soda made their horses 3-seconds faster, then 24 ounces would make their horses 9-seconds faster. Sorry - wrong number. All these idiots did was ruin a horse's stomach, or electrolyte balance, or heart rhythm. Sometimes these over-fizzed horses even died - but about 99% of the heavy duty milk-shaking trainers are still training and racing. What's wrong with this picture?

So the testing labs were stymied and even the overworked New Jersey State Police, as if they didn't have enough real crimes to worry about, were dragged into this baking soda stupidity. Eventually, one supreme ass -- a real jerk you just had to hate -- took the whole thing a step further by adding an obscure breathing drug and then pushed the envelope of even Mother Teresa's tolerance by arrogantly stepping on the wrong toes -- claiming horses from top, old-school trainers for $10,000 and winning with them the following week in $30,000 claimers. Finally somebody told somebody who told somebody else and the whole thing was exposed for what it was -- baking soda. All the ultra-dumb dark tales about "synthetic Algerian morphine" and "secret drugs from the former Soviet Union" went down the tubes - literally.

What did the press do? Well this time it was the harness racing press itself who mucked it up -- especially one loon in New Jersey who was never in a good enough mood to write anything positive about harness racing. He was mad as hell and he was not going to take it anymore! This guy sat down at his typewriter -- they didn't have laptops then -- and described, in his own scientifically uneducated and sensational way, how trainers administer a milkshake. To people who don't understand that horses get "tubed" all the time for all the right reasons, it was easy for one dingbat to make it sound as though horses were being treated like force-fattened geese being stuffed into boxes, or veal calves being tied to the ground.

Naturally. a lot of horses were accidentally killed during the tubing process because a lot of trainers were, and still are, complete idiots, but how was the industry served by exposing all of this? What was to be gained by blabbing all of these truths, half-truths and blatant lies to the public? Well, you're seeing it now. No fans and no interest. All this vigilant watchdog press from within the harness media itself put harness racing on the road to nowhere.

So, because baking soda was evil -- and in a sense it was -- the labs started testing for it. It wasn't a simple test either. The whole post-racing system had to be revamped so as to ensure the accuracy of the test.

The days of winning a race and having post race blood and urine collected and going back to the barn were over. Tired and anxious and hungry horses who wanted only to get back to their own stall and eat and go to sleep were now forced to stand around in overheated or icy cold detention stalls for hours so that blood gases could be measured. Exhausted trainers, grooms and shippers could barely stay awake while driving home at 3am after a 12th race win. Then to make it even more annoying for the horse, harness racetracks in North America started putting up these detention barns.

Of course milk-shaking is wrong because it gives a horse an edge, but just about everyone who has ever has a post race positive test for high CO2 (a baking soda indicator) in harness racing is still racing. Why bother testing? Why bother detaining? Why even bother racing? Better yet -- why bother going to the track with your friends place a few bets?

Naturally a few trainers got the book thrown at them because they did a whole lot of other nasty stuff too, but it's pretty safe to assume that just about every trainer with a milkshake positive is either dead or still racing - and some of them are icons in the industry. One of the founding fathers of the milkshake recently retired, and his departure from the game was feted as though it was Christ's ascension into heaven. It was actually a comedy. When this writer was writing for another American publication, he wasn't allowed to even mention that trainer's name.

Now the harness industry in New Jersey has a dedicated guy who imagines that he can erase all those past indiscretions. His ideas are a little eccentric, but his heart is in the right place. Mercifully, he's put the Meadowlands on a kind of comfortable life support because he loves the game -- but it's too late -- it's too late. It's hard to pull the plug on a loved one.

As far as I'll Have Another and his trainer Doug O'Neill go, O'Neill has had a couple of positive post race blood gas tests which suggest that the horse raced with baking soda. O'Neill denies doing it -- but so does everyone.

What's even more annoying about all of this is that common knowledge among horse people is that milk shaking is pretty much a harness racing miracle cure for a lot of physiological things that can come together to make a horse a slow poke. Medical science suggests that milkshakes don't really work on thoroughbreds because of the anaerobic nature of "flat" racing.

Thoroughbreds race full-out until they're exhausted, whereas standardbred racing is an aerobic type of rapid walking. Would the long distance of the Belmont Stakes lend itself to a better horse via baking soda? Probably not, but it's the angle that the simple-minded press likes to run with.

In a sick kind of way, it's almost too bad that Doug O'Neill isn't suffering from some terrible disease where the odds of him even living long enough to see his horse win the Triple Crown were slim. If that were the case, the press would be hoisting him to the heavens and framing his image on national TV with roses and a super-imposed slow-mo reel of his horse running across his haggard face - all set to sad music. This would have been great! Of course nobody wants Doug O'Neill to come down with a fatal illness, but if he had one, he'd a be a hero and thoroughbred racing would have a star instead of a media-manufactured schmuck.

Why does the American media turn everything, no matter how iconic, into a giant pile of crap? Where is the dignity? Why do they always have to have a tawdry or maudlin angle? Why does everything have to have that Jerry Springer stupidity or that Oprah-worthy simple-mindedness? Why?

As sick as it sounds, the horse racing media has already milked the "kids with cancer" angle and the "breast cancer survivor" gimmick and the "trainer whose MS stricken wife is clinging to life" or the "trainer whose mother died the night before" routines for the past 30 years. The racing press has been using and abusing the tragic misfortunes of others to get a hook for their story for too long because simply don't know enough about their product to make it interesting. And now they have this milkshake word to throw out at the public. What the hell is wrong with these people? If they can't make it maudlin or sensational or childishly dopey, they simply don't make it.

The last thing racing of either variety needs is for the public to learn that the word "milkshake" has two meanings. How many harness horses were milk-shaked right into the Hall of Fame? Quite a few - but thoroughbreds? Probably none - and you can bet on that if you opt to not bet on the Belmont for fear that your pick might lose to a drugged horse.

Racing should be outrageously aloof from the public eye the way movie stars are told by their publicists not to hang around with their fans. Once your mystique is gone, so is your career. Your fans are not your friends. They are fans because you have something that sets you apart from the rest of the world. This same psychological formula also applies to horse racing. Having a "meet the drivers day" is asinine and serves only to reinforce the idea that harness racing is a farmer's game. Only a few in the universe people know who the drivers are, and in spite of their great talents, their autographs aren't worth a dime. And who needs another Meadowlands hat or plastic beer mug or mouse pad or bobblehead Dave Miller? No offense to Dave because he's one of the greatest drivers in history, but it's safe to assume that he gets a little sick to his stomach when he looks at his own bobblehead doll.

People are interested in what they don't understand. Back in the 1960s and 1970s the fans thought the drivers were all crooks -- and a whole lot them were -- but they still came out in the tens of thousands to watch these crooks. Why doeesn't anyone get that? It's as plain as the nose on your face. If Bret Hanover had a post race positive back in the day, would anybody in the public know about it? No way on god's green earth would that information get out.

As sad as it sounds, the only way racing will survive is if the industry regains it's air of mystery and elegance, and all the bad stuff that happens in the industry remains intramural and swept away in the dust pan -- far from the public eye. The guilty should simply be quietly dismissed for all eternity -- but only when you actually catch them. Like it or not, that's the way classy people do things, and if horse racing wants to stay classy, they have to move away from this tasteless Donald Trump, "You're fired" kind of cheap journalism and management.

There are too many lawyers and too many blatantly stupid people in racing - people who are in positions of authority far above their intellectual capabilities and way beyond the grasp of their social skills. Jeff Gural was headed in the right direction until he derailed George Brennan. Tossing out George Brennan from the Meadowlands is like throwing Babe Ruth out of Yankee stadium -- it's kooky. What did George say that was so wrong -- or even newsworthy? Who is crazy enough to think that every top driver hasn't driven at least one horse who made its way to the winner's circle in an enhanced state? George was simply offering his opinion about a guy who has not had a positive test on any horse George drove for him.

The thing that really sucks is that the Meadowlands has the absolute best on-air personalities in the USA -- Canada has great ones too -- why not let these guys do all the talking and reporting? Why not hire a team of good writers who glorify the sport rather than denigrate it -- even if they have to bit their tongue every once in awhile. Can anyone imagine Sam McKee or Bob "Hollywood" Heyden or Ken Warkentin saying or doing anything to hurt the industry? It would never happen.

Horse racing is supposed to be the sport of kings, and the great unwashed masses are not supposed to know that the king uses the toilet just like a regular person. The reason there are no fans -- especially in harness racing -- is simply because the entire concept of horse racing in the USA has lost the allure of being a celebrity. The crooked trainers killed the business, but the people who govern the racing and the idiots who write about it stomped on its corpse when they should have been using CPR. Instead of pushing the curious crowds away -- "Go away. Nothing to see here" -- all the writers and officials have done, and are still doing, is cause mayhem and gossip to spread with the crazy idea that transparency and full disclosure is the best thing. That's the complete opposite of what they should be doing -- it's sheer lunacy. This brand of lunacy and ineptitude that destroyed harness racing is now eating away at thoroughbred racing, and because of that we can't even enjoy a Triple Crown possibility.

Lastly: Leave I'll Have Another and Doug O'Neill out of this. They didn't start the fire.

2012 Kentucky Derby

by David MATTIA

(David Mattia is an American harness racing trainer who now divides his time working as a racing journalist and training French Trotters for a private facility near the commune of Roquebrune-sur-Argens in the Provence-Alps-Côte d'Azur region of France).

Editor's Note: The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of www.harnesslink.com.

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