by Trey Nosrac
Sunlight warmed my neck as I sat at a picnic table eating a blueberry pancake breakfast on the Brewed Awakening Diner patio.
My pal, David, was seated across the table reading a story in The New York Times on his iPad.He lifted his mirrored sunglasses, heaved a heavy sigh, and said, “The Russians did not invent doping, but they sure made it a national sport. They received a four-year ban from the Olympics and on hosting any international events. Today, the story today is about a high jumper. The athlete went into hiding to avoid testing. The Russian government forged his documents and invented a fictitious hospital with fictitious records to give him cover.”
I said, “State-sponsored doping is lame. Russians probably start doping 12-year-old kids to win a luge race in Minsk. I like the good old USA, rugged-individualism.”
He said, “The facts in this report are disturbing. Russian cheating is rampant, blatant, and state-sponsored. Every breakthrough in testing that tries to keep pace appears to be a losing game. It’s a shame.”
He put down his iPad. “I also read about the big horse racing bust by the Feds before the virus lockdowns. Does cheating in harness racing upset you? Is it a deterrent for you? Are you glad they caught the trainers?”
I paused to collect my thoughts. It was a quick collection, “My slant on cheating is that you need to factor it into the equation. I want to believe most people in racing are honest.”
“That might be a minority opinion.”
“Do some cheat? Of course, a segment of people will always cut corners if they think they can get away with it.”
He asked, “How much goes on in horse racing?”
I sighed and admitted, “I may be a know-it-all, but I don’t know how much cheating goes down. Juicing horses is a dark hole for schmucks like me. What I DO know is that when you wave money around, a segment of those racing for the money will wave back wearing dark sunglasses and holding needles. No doubt doping and the perception of cheating hurts racing. It eats away at any sport.”
“Other sports don’t seem to have as much stain.”
“Horse racing is an easy target. Horses can’t talk. Losers look skeptically at winners in plenty of races, especially when they race amazingly above form. Other sports are grayer.”
He titled his head in confusion.
I asked him, “You follow baseball?”
“In the last full baseball season, the Cleveland Indians battled two teams for a slot in the playoffs — the Minnesota Twins and the Oakland Athletics. The difference at the end of a long season was razor-thin. The Indians came up a couple of wins short of the playoffs. It was the first time they missed the post-season in a long time.”
“In June of 2019, Oakland A’s pitcher Frankie Montas got suspended 80 games for performance-enhancing drug use when he tested positive for Ostarine by Major League Baseball. Montas was 9-2 with a 2.70 ERA and 97 strikeouts when his ‘remarkable’ season ended.
“In September, Minnesota Twins pitcher, Michael Pineda, received a 60-game suspension after he tested positive for Hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic outlawed under Major League Baseball’s Drug and Prevention Program. At the time of his suspension, Pineda was 11-5.”
“What’s your point? Major league baseball does a good job in drugs, and they dole out stiff, meaningful sentences?”
“That’s half of my point. If we erase the tainted wins by the drug violators in the 2019 baseball season, the Cleveland Indians, with zero violations, would have finished ahead of both the Twins and the A’s. Over a 180-game baseball season, this drug cheating becomes blurred, but the annoying fact is that cheaters cheated. Innocent teams suffered and did not receive extra wins to even the standings. The cheating took place over a long season, and you didn’t hear any squawking.”
“Still missing your point about cheating as it relates to your personal decision to stay or leave the game of harness horse racing.”
“I enjoy the game of baseball. The sport has had some rough years in the steroid era, but at this point, they appear to do a solid job policing and penalizing drug offenders using random testing. The union accepts the harsh penalties. Their peers shun cheating players who get busted. Bad apples take their serious medicine and do not lawyer up.”
“So, despite your home team getting dinged that season, you stick with baseball?”
“As the 2020 baseball season approached, I had three choices — stop following, continue following, or continue following while accepting that a minimal amount of cheating occurs. Meanwhile, I hope sheriffs with great big badges are empowered and work hard to root out evil. It’s the same for me in harness racing, go, stay, or stay with a heavy heart and my eyes open until I reach the tipping point.”
“So you play on, knowing that you might be playing a rigged game.”
“Games are always rigged to some degree in every sport. Some owners go to post against other owners who agree to the full spa treatment, prerace, postrace, massages, acupuncture, every nick, and ouch tended to on top of their high training bill. Maybe that is fair, maybe not, but it is what it is, and my choice is to play.”
He said, “That’s not quite the same as EPO or something else injected into a living body.”
“True, very true. And a horse doesn’t have any say in taking medicine. I guess you could say I try to compensate.”
“Compensate?” he asked.
“By playing at harness racing at tracks where in my mind, the field is level or at least leveler, knowing that I will never completely know for sure. I do all kinds of weird mental calisthenics that make me feel better about the dark cloud that never seems to go away.”
“But you race on, you still gamble on horses, just like you still follow baseball?”
I nodded, “For now. If the day arrives that the clouds are too dark, Trey will go away.”
He was quiet for a few moments, stood up and crammed a twenty-dollar bill under the napkin dispenser, and then said cryptically, “I have an idea. I’ll tell you about it next week.”