San Diego San Diegans flock to the Del Mar racetrack each summer, making it the most successful racing plant in the land, in terms of attendance. For nonregular racegoers, Del Mar is a another excuse for a party. For racetrack regulars, however, a shadow hangs over the sport they love.
Bruce Fleury of Solana Beach is in the latter group. "I had so much enjoyment from the game when it was good, when it was an event. Now, it's become diluted. We're losing it. One reason is the drugging of the animals."
Fleury, 71, is a retired teacher of oceanography and geology at Long Beach State. In the '60s and '70s, he owned and raced thoroughbreds and has been a fan for 50 years. He's rented a season box at the Del Mar track for years. Fleury believes performance-enhancing drugs used by Olympic athletes have set the pace for the illicit doping of thoroughbreds.
Veterinarians who specialize in administering to thoroughbreds are a fixture at modern American tracks, an unhealthy development in Fleury's view. "A trainer can hardly survive now if he doesn't use [illegal drugs], because the other guys who do will beat you on the racetrack. Some say the vets now do most of the training, because of the drugs, legal and illegal."
Fleury believes that "more than half" of California thoroughbred trainers "at one time or another" have deliberately administered prohibited medications to their charges, lending themselves an advantage. "The smaller, less successful trainers," he says, "often won't use illegal drugs, because they can't afford the costs of the vets, which could be around 30 percent of the training costs." And he knows some older trainers who stay away from the doping for ethical reasons.
Fleury is a dedicated handicapper, who pores over past performances in the Daily Racing Form to pick his winners. The use of illicit drugs on the track lessens the challenge and enjoyment of handicapping. He knows lifelong players who've given up the game because of the scandals on the backstretch. "[The doping] causes sudden form reversals. You used to have a lot of players who felt they could beat the game, but now these guys are just going to put their money in the quarter slots, because they got just as much chance."
Fleury's on a first-name basis with a hundred people in the racing industry, some of whom he invites to his house for a party every Del Mar meeting. Many were among the hundreds who signed a petition he and close friend Dr. Richard Tannyhill, a Solana Beach dentist and horse owner, circulated a few years ago. The petition called for a racing-rules overhaul and a second look at the penalties assessed. "The doping is bad for the players and bad for the animals. When you start introducing other materials into any form of life you're likely to change that form of life. It's an evolutionary principle. It expresses itself in mares not being able to get into foal and males not being able to produce offspring."
Doping scandals in the horse racing business aren't new; they probably go back to the days when Ben Hur was setting records in ancient Rome. In the early 1930s the federal government successfully prosecuted over a hundred horse trainers and owners for shooting up their animals with drugs as potent as heroin (one of heroin's street names used to be "horse"). The California Horse Racing Board is supposed to safeguard the integrity of the game in this state. Seven governor-appointed boardmembers and their paid staff are based in Sacramento.
The staff sets the rules and doles out violators' fines and punishments. According to the rules, the only drugs that can be given to a horse on or near race day are furesomide and a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory called Butazolidin, or bute. The furosemide is usually Lasix, a diuretic also used to control bleeding. A large percentage of American thoroughbreds are chronic bleeders and need Lasix to race. The drug is controversial; some veterinarians believe its diuretic action washes out illegal medications.
The winner of each race has its urine and blood tested at one of two facilities, a lab in Orange County or the veterinary research clinic at the University of California in Davis. Track stewards -- the horse racing board's eyes and ears -- order random tests on other racers: a hot favorite that ran poorly or a longshot that almost won. Should a test show positive for illegal medication, the trainer is held solely responsible, under the "absolute insurer rule." Although Bruce Fleury and others believe the board comes down hardest on the lesser-known trainers, a few months ago Bob Baffert, one of the top trainers in the country, had a horse test positive for morphine. Famed jockey Bill Shoemaker, after he became a trainer, had at least one horse test positive for a prohibited substance.
As a "matter of confidentiality," the board will not release test-positive trainers' names, though if information is obtained from other sources, they will confirm it. Harvey Furgatch, a former boardmember, thinks the board doesn't release all the test information. In the early '90s he unsuccessfully sued the board to release all information relating to positive tests. A former owner and breeder of thoroughbreds, Furgatch lives in Del Mar. When he was on the board in the '70s, he failed to convince the board to ban all medications. "They all affect performance," he says.
Today, Furgatch is out of racing. "It's tough enough to come out ahead in racing, even on a level playing field, so I had no chance to really compete. Too many games can be played with medication, too many things the public is completely unaware of. Everyone closes their eyes to it. There's no political will to change it, to protect the public. But I know some major players around here, heavy bettors. They say, 'I know the stuff is being used; I just hope the trainer of the horse I bet on is using it.' "