Sometimes “Draconian” rules work
by Dean Towers
Michael Arace of the Columbus Dispatch wrote a commentary this week about the detention barn situation (and aftermath of which) on Jug Day, involving the eventual winner, Betting Line. In the article, he broke some news.
“The trainers who protested Betting Line’s sizzling victory in the Jug on Sept. 22 have hired a Columbus law firm to “supplement” their initial objection. The firm produced a seven-page document that details alleged infractions against Betting Line’s trainer, Casie Coleman.” Mr. Arace wrote.
This isn’t over.
Why it isn’t, in my view, is that the Ohio judges dropped the ball. Betting Line (again, in my opinion) should’ve never been allowed to race.
There are some rules in this sport that need to be draconian, and when they’re broken, or there is intent to break them, they have to be held to that very high bar.
I remember about a decade ago there was a curious case in Hong Kong. A trainer’s charge won a race, but tested positive for a supplement. This supplement was in no way a performance enhancer, or some sort of exotic drug, it was a simple supplement that trainer’s use every day, but was not allowed in a horse on race day.
After an investigation, it turns out nothing nefarious occurred, it was a freakish mistake.
The charged trainer supplied video from the shedrow (video cameras run 24/7 in Hong Kong) that showed the horse in question, at morning feed time, was extra-hungry. He somehow contorted himself and was able to get at his stablemate’s feed tub. The horse began ingesting his pal’s breakfast right on video – a breakfast that included the supplement he ended up testing positive for.
I thought this evidence was enough to absolve the trainer of any wrongdoing. But it wasn’t.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club said there would be a fine, because the rule is clear: It is up to the connections to ensure nothing gets into a horse that should not be in that horse on the backstretch on race day. In this case, they bluntly said feed tubs should be placed nowhere near another horse, it was the trainer’s mistake, and that this provided a lesson to everyone else at feed time.
For years I thought this was the stupidest, most unfair, most ridiculous ruling I have ever seen anywhere in this sport. But recently I have changed my tune.
After this strange ruling, horsemen responded by watching their horses more closely while feeding, they made sure grooms and hotwalkers hands were washed when handling just about everything (no, there have been no cocaine positives from residue on tongue ties in Hong Kong); they instituted best practices to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
It hasn’t. There have been no contamination or freakish positives like this on the backstretch since. None, zip, zilch.
Since that strange positive, Hong Kong handle is up over 100 per cent, the stalls are full, and there’s a line as long as the Nile River of jockeys, owners and trainers who all want to be there. Everyone sure doesn’t seem to mind.
I don’t want to come off as a proponent of draconian rules in all instances. I abhor the withdrawal time issues where honest horsemen get pinched, honest mistakes that are made where these fine trainers are branded a “cheater”, and so on. But in the case where things can be corrected, I believe the hard and fast rules do make sense, and make this a better sport.
One of those cases where I believe there can be no wiggle room is the detention barn.
Everyone knows – from owners, drivers, trainers, grooms, security people and the average fan – you never, ever, ever bring something you’re not sure of into the detention barn.
Over the years there have been horses scratched, and fines given, for electrolyte residue in feed tubs, perfectly legal supplements that were brought in, and yes, in the case of Susie Kerwood in a detention barn at Woodbine back in the early 2000’s — even for yogurt.
This “rule” is draconian in nature, yes, but everyone knows it, and horsepeople stick to it.
It works because there is no grey area. There are no excuses. There are no “I didn’t know the rule.”
On Jug Day, the judges were allegedly given evidence that a horse was going to be given “something” while in detention. In the aftermath – according to Mr. Arace’s article and other press reports — this was not even denied.
Yet, the horse raced.
The trainers who are moving this forward have been pretty much raked over the coals in some quarters. I’ve seen the comments on social media:
“They once did bad things too”; “it’s sour grapes”; “why don’t they just take a loss like men”; and so on.
I fervently disagree with these characterizations. I believe they are standing up for a rule that has to be draconian, that has to be ruled with an iron fist.
“Don’t bring anything but hay, water and oats into the detention barn” is not a suggestion. And for the sport of harness racing, it should never be treated like one.