Monday, 2 November 2009

Things That Racing Fans Can Learn From Cycling

After already missing out on the Arc weekend because of my diploma work, I’ll also be unable to follow the upcoming Breeders’ Cup live. Ironically, the reason is that I’ll be in North America (that is, on a week-long trip to NYC which more likely than not won’t include a trip to Aqueduct). So no handicapping or strong interest from my side, although I will root against Zenyatta in the Classic. She may have a good chance (not too much to overcome there anyway), but personally I just don’t want to experience another 'Zenyatta For HOTY' campaign.

On a totally unrelated front, a topic that did catch my eye was a discussion on the site of my blogger friend Glenn Craven. Even though I keep finding the root of the debate a non-issue, the debate itself offers quite some value (I frequently find comment sections more worthwhile than the post itself, including on my own blog).

During said debate, I had brought up a comparison of racing’s drug problem with that of cycling, which Glenn rejected. I’m hardly the first one to draw that comparison, and it's also not the first time that I’ve seen it rejected based on the argument that cycling's doping issue was, as Glenn put it, "more obvious and well-reported".

As a longtime cycling fan (up to last fall, when they dropped the fight against cheaters for the most part), I take issue with this argument. The "more obvious and well-reported" character of cycling's problem is just that: a matter of publicity. But to the 1990s fan of cycling, the similarities between the two situation are eerie.

Just like in American thoroughbred racing, the suddenly public issue of doping was an open secret to many regular followers long before it made newspaper headlines. The problem wasn't any more rampant in 2005 or 2000 than it was in 1995, it's just that the media suddenly reported "shocking news" which had for years been commonplace knowledge to fans and many of those reporters. The only thing truly shocking was the extent of the cheating system, which (as it turns out after more than a decade of police investigations) included the vast majority of pro riders and teams, hundreds of medical professionals and even renowned medical research institutes.

Until shit hit the fan, however, cycling fans heard precisely the same kind of downplaying by pros, sporting directors and, yes, medical staff we in the horse racing fandom have become used to ('no matter what it looks like, it's always just an isolated incident, and blown out of proportion anyway').

Like in pre-investigation cycling, there has been the occasional whistleblower in American racing: Jack Van Berg labeling today’s racing environment "chemical warfare" during last year’s congressional hearings was one of several such examples out of the horseman roster.
There is also this disturbing account by former SoCal clocker Bob Kachur, an online book that I first came across about 18 months ago and initially thought must be quite well-known, but instead it seems to be a totally obscure one. I’ve read it several times since then and have continuously checked his descriptions against the facts known to racing outsiders, finally finding that the only reason it seems unbelievable at first sight is that I really don't want it to be true. I have yet to find a single instance in which I could disprove or even seriously doubt anything he writes.

Also just like in cycling during the mid-90s, there have been a handful of journalists who are unwilling to take the crap dished out by the sport’s establishment, the most prominent being Joe Drape and Andrew Beyer. Interestingly, Beyer lists cycling as his other favorite sport.

Such voices are, however, at best ignored by racing’s establishment of horsemen, racing officials, track operators, racing media etc.; often ridiculed as nutty curmudgeons, or outright accused of hurting the sport.

There are more than enough instances which make it clear that cheating in American racing is everything but a minor issue, but let’s just review one (well, two really) example(s) from this season:

Probably the most hilarious racing-related thing all year: Jeff Mullins initial defense to this spring’s detention barn incident, that he routinely used the substance in question, Air Power, on raceday in California and didn’t realize it was illegal in NY. The chuckler: it was just as illegal in CA for almost a year, meaning that Mullins unwittingly revealed that a) he and others routinely break the rules in CA; and b) Californian oversight is so incredibly lame that trainers not only never got penalized for openly violating rules, but don’t even care to learn those rules in the first place (even though "nothing but water on raceday" doesn’t seem such a tough one to memorize).
We shouldn’t be surprised though, after all CA is the state where racing officials traditionally see their primary task in helping to cover up instances of cheating, rather than in keeping such instances to a minimum. It’s also the state where, a few months later, a group of trainers including Mike Mitchell, Jeff Mullins, Art Sherman and Doug O-point-Nine'Neill saw fit to openly lobby against a steward they didn’t like. Excuse me, but isn’t opposition from a Who’s Who of cheaters the stuff that should earn a racing steward a raise rather than a trip to the unemployment office?

The facts are obvious: at least a third of North America’s Top 20 or Top 40 trainers have a long list of major rule violations (and very little remorse for any of those). Keep in mind that those are only the instances racing’s (in most states) lax oversight authorities cared to inform us about.

Life Is Not a Hollywood movie

I think one of the main reasons people are unwilling to accept the reality of widespread cheating in racing is because we’ve grown up with movie images of cheaters. One thing the cycling example makes clear is that cheaters don’t usually fit our superficial image, or even the alternate cheater images we’ve come to accept. There were the occasional tragic madmen (Marco Pantani) or desperate losers (Floyd Landis), but most of all there have been people who, in many ways, perfectly fit the cliché of the hard-working pro cyclist, who even showed a good deal of sportsmanship in other regards.

That someone is a cheater doesn’t mean they’re lazy; it doesn’t mean they owe all of their success entirely to the cheating, and it doesn’t mean they are entirely bad people. That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Jeff Mullins is a caring family man, Kirk Ziadie can be a helpful friend, or even that Rick Dutrow (on some abstract level and with obvious reservations) deeply cares about the horses entrusted to him.
All of this is possible and not even unlikely. And you know what: I still want those crooks [more colorful expletive deleted] kicked out of the sport. I don’t care what kind of a person you are in any other regard as long as you keep ruining this great sport. Be a great family man and a great friend, but as long as you can’t restrain yourself from cheating in our sport: be all of that as a postal worker, and try keeping your fingers out of the envelopes please!

(Image on top is from Good Times Cycling Blog, showing Marco Pantani; a poster child for cycling’s drug problem, although the frequently raptured Italian national hero was an unusual case in several ways. His drug-related death may have been averted if authorities hadn’t been so casual about his problems. In one case, the Italian media and cycling federation successfully lobbied that the penalty for his third positive test in three years was set out as six-month ban from October 'til March, a time he wouldn’t have competed in a race anyway)


  1. You wrote: "The only thing truly shocking was the extent of the cheating system, which (as it turns out after more than a decade of police investigations) included the vast majority of pro riders and teams. . ."

    We haven't had a decade of "police investigations" to make this a clear-cut case as in cycling, which is exactly what Craven himself was implying.

    Craven would, reading his stuff, like nothing better than to see the crookedness exposed, but the NY Times writer, he correctly says, has not delivered the beef.

    Mr. Drape has delivered the exact message that you have here -- that is, "yeah, there's a lot of cheating going on!" -- which, Hello!, we know. We'd just like to see him do more than just say it....otherwise, your own fine posts on the topic would suffice.

  2. Sid,

    the reason I only mentioned Glenn's post in passing and without going into the subject matter of that discussion was that this post isn't supposed to be a direct response to him. As I said at his blog, I appreciate his stance on journalistic ethics, but don't see them seriously violated by the two statements he took issue with.
    This post, however, is about how similar the situation of 1990s cycling is to the current one in American racing.

    Regarding the sentence you quote:
    that was the short form of what happened in cycling (I can't expect readers to be familiar with the topic).
    Obviously I don't know what a decade of investigation in racing would show and didn't mean to imply that I do. My guess is that the extent of cheating in racing would be shocking to many who still live in The World According to Waldrop, but that it's not as uniformly entrenched as in cycling, mainly because racing's multitude of circuits and jurisdictions makes our's a much more complex situation (again, a mere guess, not even an educated one).

    Personally, I think that Drape is usually doing a good job of reporting and following through on worthy stories (the story Glenn quotes, f.e. is a pretty fair account of the entire Mullins/NY story and its background, written for the broad public).

    "there's a lot of cheating going on" is indeed not breaking news, but if it wasn't for prominent journalists like Drape, Paulick and Beyer it still might be to a lot of people who spend a lot of effort and money on racing as horseplayers, owners, breeders or fans.