The following is an open letter to the Jennifer Rom who wrote an excellent article/column for Harnesslink regarding the Lou Pena controversy. Everyone should take the time to read it.
I loved your column on Harnesslink titled, “Newsflash: Lou Pena is not the Problem”. However, just to clarify; not everyone is "piling" on Lou Pena because they are owners or trainers racing against him. I have heard from others who race in other states, breeders, and people who just wager on the horses; the complaints are not coming only from those trying to protect their own best interests; they too love harness racing like you and I do.
Personally, I am glad the issue finally has gone public. For years, people have kept the conversation between themselves because discussing it in public would not be good for the sport. As a result, the problem is still here, festering like an open sore. Maybe now with the dirty laundry getting aired publicly, maybe, just maybe, something will be done to address the problem of pre-racing horses.
To me the issue is not Lou Pena who deservedly or not has become the de facto poster child for this issue. It is about every trainer that is juicing their horses. It is about trainers using beards to get around suspensions. It is about trainers that are allowed to keep racing after a split sample comes back positive while they appeal until they get a settlement they like. It is about racing commissions that apply fines and suspensions which at times are so light that medication violations are basically a cost of doing business. It’s about racing commissions that play Let’s Make a Deal with cheats instead of sticking to their guns. And yes, it is about owners who flock to trainers who are successful despite a history of recent medication violations. Horses competing in racing, be they standardbred, thoroughbred or quarter horse (we don’t have a monopoly on this problem) should be racing as close as possible on hay, oats, and water.
No, I am not calling for the automatic expulsion of a trainer violating medication rules the first time. First of all, it can be a case of violating the withdrawal period for a permitted medication; it can even be another unscrupulous person trying to frame a trainer to get them out of the way. However, when there is a record of multiple medication violations, that person needs to be banned for life, not in one state only to turn up in another state, from all of racing.
I love harness racing too; primarily as a fan, but you should be concerned about the possibility of people pumping their horses with illegal and prohibited medications. Like whipping and the problem of unwanted race horses, the treating of horses with prohibited substances will be fodder for those looking to ban horse racing; another threat to the sport you and I and countless others love. Make no mistake; the use of illegal/prohibited drugs is a serious problem. The issue should not be swept under the table.
However, I do agree we can’t be absorbed on this one issue alone. There are other issues which need to be addressed; one of them being why Harrah’s, the track you were first introduced to racing, does little to promote harness racing. If we value our wagering customers so much, why does Pocono Downs (home of this year’s Breeders Crown) have a takeout of over 30% on some of its wagers? Why do we steal the gamblers’ money when their horse is more than 200 feet behind when the race begins by not having a fair start rule? Why are we not dealing with the issue of elimination races where some horses are being driven with the idea of qualifying for the lucrative final instead of trying to win? What about the horsemen who rather race at one track all year for miniscule purses instead of racing on circuits with less racing dates at each track for more money? What about the problem of whipping which many states don’t want to address, the fact most tracks have not implemented programs to assure the safety of our equine athletes once their racing careers are over, or a slew of other issues we need to deal with to protect and promote the sport we love?
That being said, successful businesses don’t deal with just one problem at a time. There is no reason why the issue of trainers using prohibited substances can’t be addressed while the industry addresses other issues. Despite what the Zielinski report may say (I too have read it), integrity does matter.
As a side note, since you love harness racing as a fan, may I suggest you visit Goshen Historic Track for their Grand Circuit racing July 1-4? There is no wagering, but if you love the sport, it will be a weekend you will never forget. It is harness racing heaven.