When news broke about federal indictments of 27 people (trainers, assistant trainers, veterinarians, and performance-enhancing drug suppliers) for their part in doping racehorses, I immediately recalled a remarkably candid admission about race fixing in a book published in 2019 titled Better Lucky than Good, which contains 34 self-told life stories from people who work or use to work on the backside at Churchill Downs.  In the vignette by trainer Bob DeSensi, he said:

“There’s a book called Fixed that’s about two fixed races here on Derby Day.  It’s about these horses Scottish Thorn and Postal Milagro, and I just happened to be in on both races when they ran.  That was a big deal on Derby Day, to fix the last race every year.  This went on every year for a long time until finally they stopped the last race from being a claiming race.  Everybody on the backside knew it.  It’s the way we got money to go on to the next town.  It went on everyplace.  It wasn’t just here.  You never asked questions but you could figure out what was going on.  You knew the trainers that would be involved…The only way you would be in on it is if you had a horse in the race, or one of the jocks would tell you in advance, or one of the grooms…”

Scheming to defraud bettors is reprehensible but hardly surprising.  Cheating is a perennial problem in competitive sports, especially if money can be made doing so.  While horse racing has many dedicated and honest participants, unscrupulous actors are looking to swindle…and if given the opportunity, they will. 

The 27 defendants indicted this week will have their day in court (or possibly to plea bargain), so all have a legal presumption of innocence until proven otherwise.  Nonetheless, the indictments are a public relations disaster and are materially damaging to a sport whose economic sustenance depends on bettors having confidence that they are wagering on fairly run races.  Moreover, administering performance-enhancing drugs to racehorses is animal abuse.

American horse racing has proven time and again that policing is lax, to say the least.  It is highly unlikely that the last race on Kentucky Derby day could have year-after-year been fixed, as alleged, without track management or at least one Kentucky regulator hearing of it?  In 2020, why did it take the U. S. Attorney from the Southern District of New York to zero in on 27 alleged criminals in horse racing, rather than racing officials?

No policing system can guarantee that cheating will not go on, but horse racing in the United States has a long way to go to even approach perfection.  Yet, notwithstanding that pari-mutuel wagering is in secular decline, a meaningful number of insiders continue to resist much-needed reforms.

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