By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Sams left UF in 2010 for a state-of-the-art private lab in Kentucky. He doesn't miss working with limited funds and one hand tied behind his back. "They were crude and outdated methods," he says. "I wouldn't propose that anybody use them."
Florida combines lax testing with some of the nation's weakest penalties. Consider: Of 15 recent violations in seven states for use of caffeine (which can boost horses' performance), 14 resulted in trainers being suspended or horses being disqualified. Not in Florida, however, where the trainer escaped with just a $250 fine.
State leaders seem disinclined to address the issue. Of more than a dozen pari-mutuel bills proposed by this year's Legislature, none suggested harsher penalties or increased testing standards.
On a federal level, meanwhile, the Times investigation has spurred some action. Thirty-four years after Congress last regulated horseracing, New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall called a hearing last month to discuss the "alarming level of corruption and exploitation" in the sport. "Horseracing... has run off the rails," he said. "The chronic abuse of horses with painkillers and other drugs is just plain wrong."
Udall is proposing a stark reform: banning all drugs from horseracing, with no variations between state and federal oversight. Any positive drug test would disqualify a horse and suspend its trainer. Three violations would ban a trainer for life.
Don't expect that kind of change to come easily. Among those testifying in Washington were Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
"The New York Times' assertions are badly flawed and seriously misleading," Stirling said before bizarrely claiming a drug ban would be dangerous. "The call for a medication ban is premised on misconceptions by industry participants who put their own agenda ahead of the welfare of horses and jockeys."
Marshall says Calder would consider supporting a federal agency overseeing horse-racing standards. "If it would make racing a better sport, sure, we'd consider it," he says.
Ironically, the biggest threat to Calder might not be corruption, drug use, or regulation, experts say. Rather, as at tracks across Florida, slot machines are replacing the messier, more expensively maintained world of trainers, jockeys, and thoroughbreds. Like Gulfstream Park and Hialeah Park, Calder is now a "racino," having added slots and card tables in 2010. On some race days, a couple dozen old-timers watch a race from the grandstands. Meanwhile, inside Calder's new casino, thousands tempt their fate with the tap of a computer screen.
"Track owners don't want to have horse and dog racing," gambling expert Jarvis says. "It's very expensive. Profits are just not very good."
For now, Calder and other tracks can operate casinos only if they maintain their horseracing. Marshall says, "Horseracing remains at the center of everything we do."
But Calder and other racetracks' promise to Florida that winning purses would increase with the casino revenue hasn't happened, according to Jarvis. "That was the lie that was told," he says. "Their argument was that gambling meant bigger purses, better horses coming to Florida, more people at the tracks, and more people gambling. It was supposed to be good for the state and good for racing. But it was nonsense."