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COMMENTARY : A Plea to Save the Sport

NEWSDAY

The message Arthur Hancock III delivered Wednesday to the University of Arizona’s annual Symposium on Racing was the most realistic and honest assessment of the industry ever made in public by an important racing figure. And it fell, mostly, on deaf ears.

Some highlights culled from Hancock’s remarks:

--"We are dying of a disease -- corruption.”

--"Now that racing is involved in interstate commerce through simulcasting, it is Congress’ right and duty to regulate racing.”

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--"Drugs are diluting the (thoroughbred) gene pool. In another 20 years, our children probably won’t be able to breed a sound racehorse in America and they’ll have to go to Sydney or London to buy one.”

--"How can we compete with other sports if we are viewed by fans as being dishonest and riddled with drugs and thugs?”

Nothing elevates the blood pressure of a racing executive like the thought of federal regulation. There is nothing as threatening to a state racing official as the concept of a higher authority. And nothing gets a horseman’s back arched more quickly than someone telling him he should train horses without drugs. Because this was an audience made up primarily of racing executives, officials and horsemen, the message was received without enthusiasm. They’ve heard this all before.

But this wasn’t just another ivory-tower Ivy League guy running off at the mouth. This was one of Bull Hancock’s sons, a gentlemanly Southerner who has bred and trained two Kentucky Derby winners, Gato Del Sol and Sunday Silence.

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Arthur Hancock is not the cookie-cutter hardboot Lexington horse trader. He left Claiborne Farm to his brother Seth, founded Stone Farm and proceeded to breed a number of major stakes winners. He plays guitar, writes country songs and, when younger, was known for his taste for the fast lane. Hancock always has been a selectively outspoken maverick. But even from him, this was radical. In effect, he stood before a roomful of powerful, influential racing people and told them they are their own worst enemy. He told them what the horseplayers and racing fans have been saying through their diminished participation.

Usually, only those snooty New York Jockey Club-types preach the no-drug line, but this was a Kentuckian calling for a ban on race-day medication; a native son of a state with an economy based on growing tobacco, distilling whiskey, breeding horses and gambling; home of the most permissive medication rules in racing. Besides, who ever heard of a horse breeder from Lexington getting up in front of a roomful of the people largely responsible for having made such an awful mess of things and saying that because they are unable and unwilling to solve their problems, the feds should take over the game and there should be a commissioner of racing elected by the major racing groups?

The nerve. Doesn’t Hancock know that if it weren’t for all that competition from state lotteries and those damned casinos that everything would be fine? Isn’t that the first thing they teach in freshman racetrack management at the University of Arizona? Blaming the lottery and casinos, 101.

Given that there is nothing more wrong with racing than the inability of the people running it to agree on something as basic as rules and whether drugs are good or bad, federal regulation may well be an idea whose time has arrived. The rules vary, state to state, because everyone has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

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Racing is leaking drugs. In some places, the rules stop just short of paddock refueling. Florida horsemen are taking the state to court over their right to give their horses steroids. The perfectly legal mixture of Lasix and butazolidin is known as the “Kentucky Cocktail.” Amid this, Hancock had the temerity to suggest that drug-free racing could be achieved by 1994 and called for stringent testing and aggressive enforcement by federal regulators.

“I’ve given up on our all getting together and solving these problems,” he said.

Pogo made a similar observation years ago.

“We have met the enemy,” he said, “‘and they is us.”

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