Winner's Circle: Cheaters Prosper at Calder Race Course

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Cenzontle started slowly. After a quarter-mile, the long-shot was laboring at the rear of the nine-horse herd. But as he rounded the bend, the stallion surged, blowing past two favorites and finishing a neck in front. Bettors quintupled their money. Ziadie and the horse's owner earned a cool $30,000 in just 88 seconds.

Long after the winnings were cashed, however, Cenzontle's stunning upset came under scrutiny. Blood and urine samples tested positive for high levels of clenbuterol, a drug that boosts a horse's breathing ability but also functions like a steroid to build muscle mass. It wasn't Ziadie's first drug infraction. In fact, at the time of Cenzontle's big win, Ziadie was appealing a 60-day drug-related suspension from the previous year.

Because of Cenzontle's failed tests, Ziadie was given a $500 fine and 15-day suspension, but he kept racing and breaking the rules. It was a pattern that would repeat itself again and again in his controversial career. In less than a decade, Ziadie built an incredible record, winning an astounding 551 races worth nearly $11 million, all while breaking doping rules 41 times. Yet Ziadie has served only brief suspensions and been fined a total of just $13,100.

"A trainer with 41 drug violations should be kicked out of the sport," says Dr. Sheila Lyons, one of the nation's leading horse veterinarians. "We are putting both the horses' and the riders' lives at risk by allowing these drugs."

Ziadie is a racing thoroughbred in his own right. He was born in Jamaica in 1968 to a long line of Lebanese horsemen; his father, Ralph, conditioned the Jamaica Derby winner in 1970 before moving the family to Miramar in 1977. Ralph sold cars for five years in South Florida before the bugle beckoned him to a recently built racetrack in Miami Gardens.

Calder was a gambler's dream. After opening in 1971, the mile-long track earned a reputation as a no-nonsense alternative to the grander Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach. Calder was open for eight months a year, compared to Gulfstream's five, and soon became a proving ground for young horses on their way to bigger tests such as the Kentucky Derby. In 1999, Churchill Downs, the company that hosts the Derby and owns many of the nation's top racetracks, bought Calder for $87 million. Calder's annual Summit of Speed soon became one of the state's biggest affairs; in 2004, nearly $11 million was wagered during the one-day event.

Once Ralph found a spot at Calder, it didn't take him long to dominate. He won three straight training titles beginning in 1990. By 2001, he was in the Calder Race Course Hall of Fame.

Kirk was his sidekick. He's handsome, with dark features and deeply tanned skin from working outside with his father's horses. But the two had a falling-out on August 17, 1996, when they got into a screaming match at the track. The younger Ziadie began punching his father in the head, according to a police report. The case was dropped, but a judge ordered Kirk to stay away from his old man.

By 2002, Kirk Ziadie had made his own name. He won four races his first year, 14 the next, and then 41. By 2006, he was statistically among the best trainers in Florida, guiding horses to nearly $2 million in prizes (purses are usually shared between a horse's owner and trainer). During the 2006-7 season at Calder, Ziadie won 53 percent of his races on his way to being crowned trainer of the year. His win rate was incredible — in both senses of the word.

"All things being equal, you would expect a trainer to win 12.5 percent of the time in an eight-horse race," says journalist Ray Paulick, who covers the industry. "There are some very good trainers that win 25 percent of the time. Then there are some that win more than that, and that raises red flags."

In fact, there were signs of systematic rule-breaking. Like other states, Florida permits trace amounts of medications in a horse's system. Ziadie's thoroughbreds, though, began routinely exceeding those limits in 2004. That year, three of his animals tested positive for drugs: twice after winning and once after finishing second. Despite netting $27,130 from the three suspect results, Ziadie was fined only $1,100 and suspended for 15 days.

A pattern quickly emerged. In 2005, two more of Ziadie's horses won, only to fail post-race tests. The trainer was fined just $550 and allowed to keep more than $20,000 in purse money. Then, in 2006, seven of his horses flunked tests, most of them for high levels of a powerful anti-inflammatory called phenylbutazone, commonly known as "bute." One horse, a filly named Rgirldoesn'tbluff, won a race worth $24,000 before testing positive for excessive bute. Ziadie was fined $1,000.

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Michael E. Miller