It's a Slow Track for Racing : Sport of Kings Is Beset With Problems, Weak Management

Times Staff Writer

Pine Tree Lane, a 3-year-old filly who had never raced, was entered in the sixth race at Aqueduct on Jan. 23.

Running against other 3-year-old maidens, Pine Tree Lane was listed at 10 to 1 in the morning line by one of the handicappers in the Daily Racing Form. Other than her modest bloodlines, there was no information on her in the Form--no races and in this case not even a workout.

In New York, betting stops before the last few horses are loaded into the gate. Seconds before that, a large amount of money was bet on Pine Tree Lane, dropping her odds from 11-1 to 9-2.

Breaking from the No. 10 stall, Pine Tree Lane broke quickly, established an early lead in the six-furlong race and coasted to victory by almost two lengths.

There was widespread grumbling by fans at Aqueduct over the late betting on Pine Tree Lane. The reverberations carried as far as California, where one of the Santa Anita stewards, Pete Pedersen, discussed the race.

"It was surprising to me that the horse was even allowed to run, considering she had no published workouts," Pedersen said. "Our policy here is to insist on three published workouts before a first- time starter is allowed to run. We're firm about this."

Stewards at Aqueduct have since issued a new regulation requiring three published workouts for every first-time starter. But this did little to mollify the fans who had seen the appearance of a betting coup a few days before.

The Pine Tree Lane incident was especially surprising because both the owner, Ted Sabarese, and trainer, John Parisella, have good reputations. Sabarese's stable has been ranked on the national purse list and Parisella's Fight Over finished third in last year's Preakness.

Coup or not, incidents such as the Pine Tree Lane race do nothing for public confidence in racing, a sport already hurt by waning fan support.

Other factors that seem to be shaking public confidence include:

--The lack of uniform medication rules and no standard practice nationwide of allowing the public access to information on whether a horse has been treated with drugs.

--The poor quality of management at the majority of tracks, something that has helped lead to a decline in attendance.

--The lack of qualified officials, which has led to the use of former jockeys who have major racing violations in their past.

--The growing influence of people who are merely in it for the money and are not "horse people."

Even the racing industry has given subtle indications that the industry is having problems.

In 1972, racing began giving an Eclipse Award of Merit to the person who had made considerable contributions to the sport. Among the first winners were breeders John Galbreath and Edward P. Taylor, jockey Steve Cauthen and racing official Jimmy Kilroe of Santa Anita.

But after Bill Shoemaker was honored in 1981, the award was vacant for the next two years. "You mean to tell me that nobody's done anything in racing to deserve that award the last two years?" said Kent Hollingsworth, editor of The Blood-Horse magazine. "We've got nobody we can give the award to?"

Indeed, the sport is changing.

John Nerud, the Hall of Fame trainer and now president of Tartan Farms in Ocala, Fla., says he regularly hears about something funny going on in racing.

"People who aren't close to the sport think it's dishonest," Nerud said. "They think a trainer is a fellow in a plaid jacket who steals chickens at night. And they have some good reasons, because the game is changing. More and more, your owners are just money people, and they're looking to get rich in a hurry."

But Morris Alhadeff, president of the Longacres track near Seattle and president for the last two years of the Thoroughbred Racing Assn., a group of most of the major tracks in the United States and Canada, believes the public's perception of racing has improved greatly in recent years.

Says Tom Gentry, a Kentucky breeder who once owned a horse in partnership with former President Carter:

"I may be naive, but I don't think there's much funny business going on. There hasn't been a major scandal in several years. Years ago, I guess, a guy could sneak a horse in from San Luis Rey Downs (a training center just north of San Diego) and make a score, but I don't think that happens anymore."

The last major scandal crested in 1978, when Tony Ciulla, a confessed fixer of hundreds of races, implicated some of New York's best jockeys. Although a few of the riders were ruled off--including Jose Amy, who returned to his native Puerto Rico, and Jacinto Vasquez, whose one-year suspension for offering a bribe to another jockey ends Feb. 24--the only New York conviction was that of Con Errico, a former jockey found guilty of racketeering.

Perhaps coincidentally, racing's attendance began to stagnate. In 1983, 55 million people attended thoroughbred races, the lowest total since 1973. Betting reached $7.6 billion in 1983, slightly less than the record year in 1982. But for the first time since 1972 the betting total was down from the previous year.

Overall figures for 1984 aren't available, but major tracks such as Belmont Park and Hollywood Park showed noticeable declines in attendance. Contrasted with the recent legalization of racing in Oklahoma, Minnesota, Alabama, Iowa and Missouri, there are a number of struggling tracks. Several--Bowie and Laurel in Maryland, Arlington Park near Chicago, Keystone in the Philadelphia area and Detroit Race Course--have been sold. Since the early 1970s, at least 16 tracks have gone out of business.

Hollingsworth said: "Of more than 100 race tracks in North America, there are only four or five recognized as having good management."

That might be an exaggeration, but racing leadership is also questioned by Bill Killingsworth, an independent industry analyst. "Fewer than 20% of all race tracks have ever conducted any kind of genuine fan survey," Killingsworth said. "How can a track design the proper advertising campaign when so little is known about who comes to the races and why?"

Generally, Southern California tracks have been running contrary to the national trend, mainly because of high-quality racing and a comparative lack of gambling competition. But, the start of a state lottery is imminent and racing here also has restive fans whose complaints are not to be taken lightly.

Joe Bosante of Monrovia, who had been going to the races about 30 times a year since 1955, stumbled over a child near the betting windows at Santa Anita a couple of years ago, injured his hip and hasn't returned to the track since.

"The toddler couldn't have been more than 2 years old," Bosante said. "An adult nearby, who was probably the father, gave me a disinterested glance and resumed studying his racing paper."

Santa Anita encourages family groups to attend the races, a reason why it is popular. In Florida, state law requires that a person be 18 before being admitted to the track. The Florida tracks have fought for years to have the minimum age lowered.

Bosante, 57, is the type of racegoer tracks need, because they have generally been unsuccessful in attracting a younger clientele.

Sidney Lazarow, a 65-year-old retiree from Orange, used to go to the races two or three times a week, but attended only once last year. Lazarow is still sour over an incident that occurred at Hollywood Park in 1983.

"I was early meeting my wife at LAX, so I stopped at the track to play a few races," Lazarow said. "I cashed a $35 bet, then went to the windows to bet $20 of that on the next race. The clerk said my $20 bill was counterfeit, and even though I explained where I got it, I was taken down and questioned. Before it was all over, I had the feeling that I was going to be accused of pushing the bad bill. I never did get reimbursed and didn't take the bad 20 back for fear that I might be arrested."

It disturbs Ben Benkowski of San Bernardino that horsemen in California who have medication information not available to the public can bet on their horses. Lasix, the brand name for the legal diuretic that is given to bleeders, is capable of dramatically improving a horse's performance the first time he's treated. In Illinois and Maryland, for example, Lasix information is available to the public, but not in California.

"Many people say a medication list will only confuse the public," Benkowski says. "Does it confuse horsemen or owners? Why do we condone wagers by trainers and owners who obviously have inside information?"

For a couple of years, the California Horse Racing Board has been talking about publishing a list of registered bleeders. Len Foote, executive secretary of the board, says a computer system, which cost $600,000 and is capable of providing other services, could be ready to supply bleeder information by June.

"But," Foote said, "the board would first have to approve the publication of such information."

Board member Patti Mancini, who is chairman of the medication committee, said it is likely the bleeder information would only include a list of first-time horses on Lasix. Why not more information, such as that furnished in Illinois, which lists horses continuing to use Lasix and horses no longer being treated with the medication?

"We are concerned about the accuracy of the information," Mancini said. "There's the possibility of lawsuits if the information you give out isn't correct. You can go too far with all of this. Before you know it, people will be wanting to know how long it took a horse to walk from his barn to the track on the day he ran."

Alhadeff says racegoers' biggest misconceptions about the sport are in the medication area. "The industry's been weak in communicating the difference between therapeutic medication and hard drugs, and the public, on the whole, doesn't know the difference," Alhadeff said.

"There are sore horses who run with what is the equivalent of an athlete playing with a sprained ankle. These horses should be allowed to run with medication as long as it's legal."

Only in New York and Arkansas are horses prohibited from running with any medication. Thus, when the multimillion-dollar Breeders' Cup races are run at Aqueduct next Nov. 2, the rules will be different than they were for the first series last Nov. 10 in California, which has liberal medication rules.

"There are a number of anti-medication people on the Breeders' Cup board," said Aaron Jones, the Eugene, Ore., breeder who races horses in California. "I thought that eventually the Breeders' Cup series might result in a uniform medication rule for the entire country. But it doesn't look like anybody's going to push for that this year, with the races being held in a no-medication state."

The most famous case of an illegally medicated horse came in the 1968 Kentucky Derby, when Dancer's Image won the race, but was found to have a large amount of Butazolidin in his system. Bute, as it is known, is a pain-killer that is legal in many states now, but in 1968 it was not allowed in Kentucky. Dancer's Image was disqualified and the purse money of $122,600 was given to Forward Pass, who had run second.

"The Derby's a helluva better race today because of that disqualification," Nerud said. "Before then, a lot of New York people wouldn't take their horses to the Derby. They were hopping horses down there, and not just using Bute. But the Derby people, they were building up the race, and determined not to have a major scandal."

Of course, the urine test and disqualification of Dancer's Image came too late to affect the Derby's betting payoffs.

A year later, an attorney for local veterinarian Alex Harthill told the Kentucky State Racing Commission that the vet had put aspirin, not an illegal drug, in the feed of Dancer's Image. Harthill paid a $500 fine.

"One of the big problems with racing is that it lets serious violators off too easy," said Cliff Wickman, president of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, which polices the sport at more than 50 tracks.

Harthill has the reputation of being an excellent veterinarian. He was part of the operating team that unsuccessfully tried to save the great filly Ruffian after she broke down in a match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park in 1975.

For various reasons, however, Harthill has been barred from practicing in some states. He was once refused a horse owner's license at Santa Anita because he didn't list an Illinois suspension on his application.

Harthill has been director of racing at the Fair Grounds, and currently works at the New Orleans track as a consultant to the president. Bob Roesler, sports editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, has been barred from the Fair Grounds press box for about four years because of columns he has written about Harthill. Among other things, Roesler reported that Harthill treated horses at the Fair Grounds even though he wasn't licensed to practice in Louisiana.

Wickman, a former FBI agent, says he was shocked to learn last year that Lane Suire, a former jockey, had been appointed as a paddock judge and horse identifier at Evangeline Downs, another Louisiana track. In 1972, a whip containing a battery prod was found after a race at Hawthorne near Chicago and Suire received a five-year riding suspension.

"There is a lack of qualified racing officials," Wickman said, "but I don't think it's so bad that a person with a major ruling on his record should fill an important post."

Jesse Davidson, who spent four months in prison after being convicted, along with three other jockeys, of conspiring to fix a race that led to a large trifecta payoff at Bowie in 1975, recently was granted the right to ride again. Davidson, who led the country in wins in 1965, has insisted he was innocent, and a Baltimore judge ruled that the Maryland Racing Commission was "arbitrary and capricious" in pre-judging the case.

Suire unsuccessfully sued the Illinois Racing Board, claiming that he had been denied a full hearing. Last year, Tony Ciulla filed a $30 million suit against the TRPB for invasion of privacy. The security agency had revealed that Ciulla and his wife were living in Malibu under another name and that she had bought a horse and applied for a license at Hollywood Park.

In November, a federal district court ruled that under the circumstances the Ciullas were newsworthy. The Ciullas are appealing the decision.

If racing is to change its reputation, it may fall on the shoulders of individuals such as Robert Brennan. Brennan, 40, launched First Jersey Securities, Inc. in Red Bank, N.J., with a $15,000 personal loan 10 years ago, and has seen it grow into a firm that reportedly handled $3 billion in securities and generated $30 million in earnings last year.

Brennan's Due Process Stable first appeared at the Hialeah 2-year-old sales in 1981. In 1983, Due Process finished third in the national owner standings with $2 million in purses and won 97 races, tying for fifth place on that list.

In the last two years, Brennan has gone in virtually every direction the racing game offers:

--Having spent $15.5 million to buy Garden State Park, a track that had been closed since being ruined by a 1977 fire, he raised an estimated $130 million to rebuild the facility for an opening April 1.

--Through his public company, International Thoroughbred Breeders, Inc., he's bought Keystone, another Philadelphia-area track, for $37.5 million.

--To operate both tracks, he hired away Bob Quigley, who had been credited for much of the success of the Meadowlands in New Jersey.

--He's running a $1 million race for 3-year-olds, the Jersey Derby, at Garden State on May 27.

--He's offering either a $2 million or a $1 million bonus to the Kentucky Derby winner if the horse also wins certain stakes at Garden State.

--The owner of breeding farms in New Jersey, Florida and Kentucky, Brennan recently paid $1 million for the right to breed one mare one time to Northern Dancer.

But instead of recognizing what Brennan has done, racing is wary of this upstart. For one thing, First Jersey Securities was involved in a five-year debate with the Securities and Exchange Commission over charges of price manipulation. This battle ended late last year when the SEC dropped its allegations with the proviso that future violations by First Jersey would be subject to criminal rather than civil penalties.

Some in racing suggest that the Brennan empire is a house of cards. Others hail him as the savior of New Jersey racing.

But what's good for New Jersey might not be good for Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and Belmont Park in New York. After the May 4 Kentucky Derby, the next legs of the Triple Crown are the Preakness at Pimlico on May 18 and the Belmont Stakes on June 8, both $350,000-added races this year.

Brennan's $1 million Jersey Derby is scheduled right in the middle, making it likely that horses running at Garden State could skip the Preakness or the Belmont or both, diluting the interest in those races.

Maybe an usher at Belmont Park was trying to tell Brennan something a while back. Attending the races with some of his nine children, Brennan bought a few hot dogs at a concession stand and tried to take them to the box seat area.

"Sorry, sir," the usher said, "but you're not allowed to take those down there."

"Where do you want us to eat them," a flabbergasted, indignant Brennan said, "in the men's room?"

Not recognizing racing's boy wonder, the usher stood his ground. Despite its problems, the troubled racing world may do the same thing until it sees more of Robert Brennan.

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