Owners don't care if their trainer uses illegal dope, he says, as long as they win. " 'If he gets caught,' they'll say, 'it's his problem.' " The board-assessed fines for illicit drugs ranges from $500 to $2000. As most top Southern California trainers earn in the high-six figures annually, Furgatch doesn't see fines as a deterrent. "Considering the purses, they probably consider it a pretty good investment." Most suspensions are for 30 days; they have as much effect, Furgatch notes, "as a manager getting kicked out of a baseball game."
People often call Furgatch and urge him to get back into the fight to clean up racing, but he prefers detached cynicism. A few years back, when a well-known trainer had a horse test positive for morphine, the trainer claimed one of his grooms had fed the horse a poppy-seed bagel, which had caused the positive. "I went up to him and asked if the bagel had cream cheese."
A racing-board stat sheet indicates that from 1994 through 1999, post-race lab tests came up with 102 positives for prohibited drugs, including morphine, albuterol, procaine, caffeine, scopolamine, and clenbuterol, the last three the most common. Caffeine is a stimulant; scopolamine and clenbuterol are bronchodilators, which help horses with breathing problems or increase the pulmonary capacities of those that do not.
When a horse tests positive, the trainer or owner can first send a split sample for independent testing to a reputable laboratory approved by the racing board. If that comes up positive, the trainer can appeal any penalty to an administrative law judge, an arbitrator who works for the state and hears the evidence from both sides -- presented by lawyers -- and then recommends a course of action. Such appeals occur in fewer than ten percent of all cases, but when they do, according to a press spokesman for the board, "The trainers almost always win." Though the board is not obligated to accept the recommendations of the judge, frequently a compromise penalty is agreed to.
Those 102 positives were the result of over 100,000 tests, or one-tenth of one percent, the press spokesman said. Current racing board chairman Robert Tourtelot, made that same point in a speech delivered earlier this year to a convention of state-racing commissioners. "Even that low figure represents too much," said Tourtelot, "but we aren't talking about a lot of serious cheaters out there, even though the rumors would have you believe the opposite -- rumors that are fueled by naysayers and the media." Tourtelot told the convention that the interests of the betting public will be protected by the board's policy of "zero tolerance."
The one-tenth of one percent figure infuriates Bruce Fleury. "That's a lie. That's an outright fabrication. You can multiply that by at least ten. The horse racing board is a joke. They don't do anything. They investigate, but their thing really is, 'Don't rock the boat, we don't want any bad press.' "
Warren Eves, 64, an industry gadfly, is another who rejects the low positive test figures advanced by the horse racing board. Eves spent his life in the racing business, at various tracks, in both management and on the backside. Some 20 years ago he was turf editor of the Pasadena Star-News. His many contacts at the California tracks, he says, convince him that the problem of illicit doping is pandemic. He believes advances in pharmacology regularly outpace testing procedures.
Chemists have told him that it's not difficult to "take a winning edge by making a simple molecular change in the chemical makeup of a drug," rendering it undetectable. He mentions the practice of "blocking," or injecting a pain-killing drug like Serapin or Ambloc directly into the nerves of hurting horses to improve their performance. No tests can consistently detect these drugs, he claims. "It's gone from clenbuterol to blood doping. A few years ago we saw [a trainer with] horses that couldn't outrun a fat man. Then, all of a sudden, they'd break at the top of the lane and gallop out to the backside like they wanted to go a mile and half. You figure it out.
"Somebody has got to step up and indict the cheaters in our training ranks. These guys are never guilty. It's like all the guys in prison. Nobody's ever guilty of anything. Trainers get nailed for hard drugs [in a horse], and they blame it on an addicted groom. And they'll say a nanogram of something is too small an amount to affect a horse."
Eves now runs a handicapping service out of Las Vegas. "I'd be kidding you if I told you [the illegal doping] doesn't affect anyone who does a handicap." He believes the track stewards and the board have a double standard, going after the small trainers but laying off the rich and famous. "[The board] sometimes do get the guy with no money, the guy who can't defend himself. Those that have money are going to appeal to the administrative law judge. The guys that don't are going to get penalized. Same in the judicial system. To say that I'm disgusted with it is an understatement. They either have to eliminate all drugs or just say, 'The hell with it, use anything you want.' "
A case that still angers Eves involved Richard Mandella, now training horses at the Del Mar meeting. In 1994, after two of his horses tested positive for scopolamine, Mandella successfully appealed to an administrative law judge. He claimed the drug was in the animals' systems because they had eaten jimson weed with their feed. Jimson weed grows wild in California and can produce a positive for scopolamine when ingested. Mandella says he traced the weed to a field in Santa Rosa. The horse racing board cancelled his $750 fine, although the purse money was taken and distributed to the owners of the runner-up horses.
Mandella's case became the subject of an investigative article in the Sacramento Bee, which quoted a number of veterinarians and racing chemists that scopolamine derived from the ingestion of jimson weed would also produce a corollary substance, atropine. There was no atropine in the Mandella samples, which prompted Warren Eves to state that "Dick Mandella's jimson-weed theory is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. He's got this squeaky-clean image, but I call him the Teflon man."