One by one, horses strut into the stadium for the second race of the day. Each is a sleek machine shining under the sweltering midday sun. Their sinewy legs sway under muscular torsos rippling with veins like river deltas. Portly Jamaicans and aging sailors with faded forearm tattoos stand in a semicircle, scrutinizing the contestants.
The bookmaker's favorite is On Appeal, a powerful animal that has won two races at Calder Casino & Race Course in the past month. His advantage is obvious: He's 100 pounds heavier and a hand taller than the smallest horse, a light-brown gelding called Sole Runner. The runt is a 16-1 underdog, for good reason. He has yet to win this year in six attempts.
The seven thoroughbreds line up on the far side of the gray dirt track in the shadow of Florida's Turnpike. An electronic bugle signals they are ready. With a crash of collapsing metal doors, the horses are off. In an instant, they are a blur of black and brown, moving almost as fast as the cars on the expressway above.
As the horses reach the end of the back stretch, On Appeal is predictably at the head of the pack. Amazingly, though, Sole Runner is right next to him, having the race of his life. As they round the bend, Sole Runner edges ahead, running as if possessed. On Appeal drops back, and suddenly Sole Runner is true to his name.
"Sole Runner has run them right off their heels so far!" announcer Bobby Neuman shouts. The beasts burst down the home stretch. "Nobody's gaining ground on Sole Runner!" Neuman says in disbelief as the horse cruises to a five-length victory.
Jockey Jonathan Gonzales guides the champion to the winner's circle. The animal, whose head is covered by a white hood with blinders, is a quivering mass of muscle. Cameras click as Gonzales poses atop his mount.
"Returning to the winner's circle... Sole Runner," Neuman says. "He's owned by Frank Calabrese and trained by Kirk Ziadie."
"Kirk Ziadie?!" exclaims a wiry old Jamaican in an oversize shirt, belatedly recognizing the muscular man in ripped jeans who has entered the circle to hold the reins. "Aw, man. If I had known, I would have bet on him. He's a helluva trainer. He was trainer of the year a couple years ago.
"Then they suspended him," he adds in a whisper. "Something about using drugs on the horses."
In fact, this time last year Ziadie couldn't set foot inside Calder. That's because from 2004 to 2009, the trainer was cited 38 times by state regulators for pumping his horses full of banned steroids, tranquilizers, and painkillers — by far one of the worst records in the state. Many of those violations were at Calder. Yet Ziadie continued racing until one of his own employees blew the whistle. Now, after a short ban, he's back to winning. Fellow trainers are furious.
At tracks across the nation, a dark cloud of doping accusations hangs over the sport. Top trainers are routinely suspended for injecting animals with strange cocktails, including cobra venom and frog poison. The drugs mask the animals' injuries, which cause horses to break down and die on live television. Not even prestigious races such as the Preakness Stakes and the Kentucky Derby are free of suspicion.
Calder shows exactly why. Records reveal dozens of cases of horse doping. Two ongoing lawsuits claim course officials conspired to steal horses, rig races, and ban anyone who raised objections. In May, three men connected to the track were sentenced to federal prison for running a $5 million scheme out of Calder for more than a decade.
Calder officials deny there is any widespread problem at the track, calling Ziadie's violations isolated and the fraud scheme a product of previous management.
"Calder is an industry leader for racetrack safety," says John Marshall, Calder's vice president of racing.
Yet a New Times investigation shows Calder officials knew for five years about Ziadie's record of positive drug tests but did nothing. Interviews with former Calder employees and horsemen also suggest the course cared more about keeping mum and making money than protecting horses and jockeys.
Larger blame also lies with the State of Florida, which has some of the laxest regulations in the country. With deliberately outdated testing techniques, fines that are a pittance compared to the prizes for winning dirty, and criminal charges completely unheard of, Florida practically encourages cheating at the track.
"Any time you're talking about a place with a lot of money, there is going to be fraud and rule-breaking," says Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University and an expert on gambling and sports. "The thing about racing is that the horse never testifies."
Long before Sole Runner's surprise victory, Kirk Ziadie was mysteriously turning mediocre horses into winners and making millions in the process. On one serene September afternoon in 2008, for instance, he entered a 4-year-old stallion named Cenzontle into a high-stakes Calder race.