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Another Drug Violation in Racing, Another Shrug

The latest drug overage of thoroughbred horse trainer Rudy Rodriguez shines a grim light on a nagging reality of his sport: in theory, for the sake of the sport's ethics, the scales of risk must be tipped overwhelmingly in favor of horses' safety; in practice, they often are not.

Rodriguez was caught Friday with a fourth overage of the drug Banamine -- a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory -- in slightly over a year. Rodriguez previously had a violation so high that, instead of resorting to the trainer's usual defense of contaminated feed or an erring veterinarian, he contended that it was sabotage. 

There is a fundamental question at the heart of horse racing: is it right for humans to possess such control over horses when their influence can so often be destructive? The redemption of the sport, expressed as the love of the horse, requires an inordinate abundance of caution. Yet this caution that is so obvious as an organizing principle of the enterprise is flaunted regularly, not just by shameful trainers but by an enabling coterie of indifferent journalists, passive insiders, and equivocating leaders. 

Heading into the Derby, Rodriguez's record was so troubling that he was called before the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to explain why he should have a license -- a good question made even better by his 2007 suspension in relation to his role as an assistant to since-disgraced trainer Richard Dutrow. He was eventually granted his license under the condition that his horse, Vyjack, undergo 24-hour video surveillance.

What is striking is not the medication overage in particular. Banamine is permitted in horses as long as levels remain below a certain level on race day. The problem is how many people are willing to give trainers like Rodriguez the benefit of the doubt. 

"I just think it would be a shame if Rudy didn't get to have his name on the program and walk over with his horse," testified Dale Romans, who won last year's Eclipse Award as the nation's most outstanding trainer, at Rodriguez's hearing, later adding, "I don’t think the commission should have singled Rudy out. It’s ridiculous.” 

“It just breaks my heart that he has to go through this," said Michael Dubb, a member of the New York Racing Association's board of directors. "You shouldn’t be singled out because you work hard.”

Racing journalists wrote "against-the-odds" pieces about Rodriguez as the Derby approached, glossing over the absolutely preposterous claim of perennial sabotage in order to focus on bubblegum narratives of how Rodriguez "won’t let the scrutiny interfere with his first Derby experience." Other pieces glorified the trainer's work ethic and downplayed the severity of the violation

These accounts have the sport's risk calculus backwards. Horses are in humans' control, and thus the preponderance of scrutiny must always face those vying for that authority. The burden of proof should lie squarely on Rodriguez, to protect horse instead of horseman, because mistakes in the other direction are so much more costly. Those defending Rodriguez exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding of who should be protected.

Indeed, there are worse drugs in racing than Banamine. But all painkillers -- in a sport where masked pain can lead unfit horses to doomed races -- must be treated with skepticism. The problem with horse racing lies not with painkillers per se, but in their abuse, and this is where the sport's watchdogs have been asleep.

Jamie Berk

This is part of a series, Dispatches from the Triple Crown. Read the initial feature, "Whispers in the Shade of Roses," hereFor additional columns and vignettes, click here

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