Cheaters Prosper at Calder Race Course
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.
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.
"Just about every trainer has made an honest mistake with therapeutic medications," Paulick says. "But it just struck me as amazing for a horse trainer to have so many medication violations in such a short period of time."
When Ziadie's horse Not Acclaim won a race on April 19, 2007, but then tested positive for a tranquilizer, it seemed as if the state's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering would finally make an example of him. The agency fined him $1,000 — still only a fraction of the winnings — but suspended him for two months.
Ziadie appealed, though, and won a Tallahassee court injunction. His punishment wouldn't be confirmed for another couple of years, even after he admitted to giving the tranquilizer to his horses. Ziadie pleaded for leniency, arguing that his finances were "in chaos" but that he wasn't deliberately cheating.
As his case dragged over two years, more than a dozen Ziadie thoroughbreds failed drug tests. Cenzontle failed twice. Yet when Ziadie's luck finally did end, it was no thanks to state regulators.
In July 2009, the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering received three anonymous complaints. "He... come[s] late at nights when no one is there to give his 'vitamins,'" began a letter from someone who said he worked for the trainer. "He carries a black briefcase and sometimes he takes the needles out of it to inject the horses."
The letter continued, "If you get someone to search the car or truck, you will find the drugs there... That is the real stuff that he gives the horses to make them run faster or hide their pain so they could run on race days."
Another letter claimed, "I have known this young man since his teenage years and ever since then, he was filled with greed to win races." A third accused Ziadie of avoiding suspensions by racing his horses under other trainers' names.
One of Ziadie's employees began cooperating with Calder. The unnamed assistant gave the track's security manager, Steve Diamond, hypodermic syringes full of drugs that he claimed Ziadie had told him to inject into various horses shortly before their races.
"I hope I am not placed in danger and that my name is not revealed," the informant wrote, adding that Ziadie often killed barn pigeons with a shotgun. "[If] he finds out... he is crazy and capable of killing me or paying someone else to do it for him."
On August 20, 2009 — five years after Calder was first informed of the trainer's drug violations — Ziadie was finally banned from the track. Calder officials gave him 72 hours to remove his 50 horses.
Incredibly, state regulators closed their case against Ziadie a few months later when the informant abruptly disappeared. Even more outrageous: Despite 38 drug violations in less than five years, Ziadie never returned a cent of the more than $10 million his horses won. State law allows the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to reclaim winnings after tainted races, but the agency simply never asked. Instead, it fined Ziadie a total of $13,100 — less than the prize for a single race.
He was also banned from other tracks in Florida, including Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs. But other states weren't aware of Ziadie's record. It wasn't long before Laurel Park in Maryland gave him ten stalls. And Chicago horse owner Frank Calabrese hired him to train his thoroughbreds. Soon, Ziadie was back in Florida. Gulfstream agreed to give him a stall in February 2011. Then, last October, Calder granted the disgraced trainer five stalls and permission to race.
Calder officials defend their handling of Ziadie's violations. Marshall says the track took action to ban Ziadie before the state's two-month suspension, and denied numerous reinstatement requests from the trainer until they were satisfied he'd reformed.
"It's important to understand that legal medications are a part of racing," Marshall says. "Most of those violations on Kirk's record weren't for illegal drugs; they were for legal medications that exceeded state limits."
Ziadie is now back to his winning ways. Last fall he won 33 percent of his races, fifth-best among trainers who raced at least ten horses. So far this year, he has won 23 of his 68 races (34 percent), putting him on track to finish as one of Calder's top trainers.
His other habits have resurfaced too. His horses have already tested positive for high bute levels three times this year, including twice at Calder. Because state regulators recently lowered the allowed limit, however, they gave him a free pass. Other trainers at Calder are furious that the race course has allowed Ziadie to return. "After all those positives?" said one, who asked to remain anonymous. "It's unbelievable."
In an interview with New Times, Ziadie gives contradictory statements. He claims his two-year ban was due to financial problems after several horse owners stopped paying him. Confronted with records showing the ban was actually due to drug infractions, he admits to having "some positives." But he describes the drugs as "low-grade medications similar to aspirin for humans."
Ziadie says he's a winner because he treats his horses better — not worse — than other trainers. "I love my horses. My horses run because they are happy. They are treated like King James in my stalls," he says. "They've got no proof of me doing anything wrong. They've never found a needle on me."
Presented with specific evidence of doping — including the drug-filled syringes his employee handed over to Calder — Ziadie admits to making "mistakes."
"How many horses have I trained?" he says. "Over a thousand. So to me, [41 positives] is nothing. That's just carelessness."
Then Ziadie becomes defiant, calling the employee who ratted on him a "faggot."
"I didn't want no faggots working for me, so I fired him."
And he blames his bad reputation on the "enemies" he's made by winning at the track.
"Look at Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant," he says. "Any time you do anything in life and you are successful, they are always going to try to bring you down."
Mark Cantrell had just finished climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge when he saw the message blinking on his phone. With long, stringy hair and a supersize upper body, Cantrell resembled a professional wrestler past his peak. He was on vacation with his fiancée in Australia, but suddenly he became very worried. The message was from Steve Cross, Calder's track superintendent. Cantrell excused himself and called Cross. Over the whipping South Pacific winds, he could just make out Cross's message: The jig was up.
"Churchill Downs has lawyers all over this place," Cantrell remembers Cross telling him in March 2008. "They are on to us."
For ten years, Cross, Cantrell, and a man named Israel Campos had run a massive fraud operation out of Calder. As the person in charge of maintaining the grass and track, Cross ordered nearly $4 million of chemicals from Cantrell and Campos (plus almost another million from unidentified plumbing, welding, and painting contractors). But the goods were never delivered, and Cross received roughly $2 million in kickbacks from the phony vendors.
The trio was finally charged this year. On the surface, it seems like an open-and-shut case of employees ripping off their clueless bosses. But there is more to the story, Cantrell claims. He says Cross could never have ordered $5 million of fake goods without his supervisors noticing.
Current Calder officials acknowledge the track had management problems that contributed to the scheme but say they've solved the problems with new leadership. "I didn't have the pleasure of knowing Steve Cross, but our company has identified the improprieties under his watch through a thorough audit process," Marshall says.
When Cross first met Cantrell in 1999, he was convinced the guy was a cop. But Cantrell was in trouble. He and his dad owed thousands after a failed exterminator business. Cantrell had two kids, and his wife was pregnant with twins.
A friend had told Cantrell about the operation Cross and Campos had started the year before at Calder. It was as easy as filling out fake receipts and then cashing the checks, the friend said. Cantrell showed up at Cross's trailer on the backside of Calder. Eventually convinced that the cash-strapped mess wasn't a cop, Cross cut Cantrell in on the scam.
Every week for the next decade, Cantrell stopped by Cross's trailer and exchanged a phony receipt for a real check, issued by the Calder accounting department. Then Cantrell would pass Cross an envelope with his half of the fraudulent funds, usually $3,000 to $5,000. Campos did the same. The simple deception earned them each roughly $150,000 a year, while Cross made twice that much.
Flush with cash, Cross began driving a Corvette and taking gambling trips to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Cantrell, meanwhile, went downhill after his divorce. He wallowed in drugs and prostitutes for a couple of years, he admits.
There was too much missing money to hide forever, though. Campos had Cross issue the checks to one of his employees, but cashed them himself. When the woman received a W-2 listing income of more than $300,000, she freaked out and went to the IRS. By March 2008, Calder was swarming with Churchill Downs attorneys. That's when Cross called Cantrell in Australia and told him to keep quiet.
But when Cantrell returned to Florida, there was a subpoena waiting for him. He promptly spilled his guts to Calder's lawyers about the $4 million scheme in return for immunity from a lawsuit.
"You can call me a fucking rat. I don't care," he says. "In the end, it's your own skin that you're worried about."
Calder fired Cross and then sued him. The case remains open.
Cantrell's deal with Calder didn't protect him from federal investigators. He and his co-conspirators were indicted this past February. Again, he cooperated in hopes of reducing his sentence. It worked. On May 22, he got 13 months in prison. Campos received 33 months, and Cross nabbed nearly five years. In court, prosecutors admitted that Cantrell had made their case.
Standing beneath the hulking stone awning of the federal courthouse in downtown Miami, Cantrell seems at peace. After a decade of thrills financed by fraud, he no longer looks much like a cop. His long hair is greasy and streaked with bleach like a surf bum's. His face is half-frozen by all the Xanax and codeine syrup he's been taking to avoid violating his parole. And he's wearing a blue Smurf T-shirt that reads, "Call Me Big Papa."
Yesterday was Independence Day; today he's turning himself in. "I never lied to anybody," he says in the shadow of the federal prison where he'll be locked up for the next year. "As soon as I got caught, I turned myself in and told them everything."
Two things still bother Cantrell, though. First, he'll miss a year of his kids' lives. But he's also pissed that it's business as usual at Calder. The race course recouped most of the stolen money thanks to its employee theft insurance. Cross was the only Calder employee charged in the scheme; he told prosecutors that his bosses played no part in it. Cantrell claims Cross was simply covering for his higherups.
He walks into the tomb-like building and hands his parole card to a U.S. Marshal. "It's time to pay the pied piper," he says, but not before one last warning: "Calder is one of the dirtiest racetracks around. There are a lot of secrets still buried there."
That claim is backed up by an unlikely source: Steve Cross. A few weeks before beginning his own prison sentence, Cross gruffly answered one question before hanging up on New Times. "What really goes on behind the scenes at Calder?" he asked, repeating a reporter's question. "Everything."
At Calder, crime goes well beyond fraud cases and drug violations for trainers like Kirk Ziadie. Records show cops responded to the track and its attached casino nearly 500 times in the past five years. More than 600 pages of state and city records suggest that guns, drugs, and counterfeit cash are common at the track.
These crimes bolster claims contained in two lawsuits pending against Calder in South Florida courts that claim Calder officials ignored rampant wrongdoing at the racetrack and banned horse trainers who complained. The suits allege:
• the track banned a horse owner named Dennis Fisher after he complained about race fixing and drug abuse at the track;
• track officials helped a horse owner claim animals belonging to trainer Rene Wagner after she ratted on abuses, including the use of electric "buzzers" to spur horses during races;
• and a breeder named Gina Silvestri lost horses after a track secretary illegally transferred their ownership.
Calder officials declined to comment specifically about any of those cases because both remain open. Fisher says the cases, taken together, demonstrate that track leaders try to throw whistleblowers out rather than take allegations seriously.
"Calder higherups believe that they are holier than thou, but I caught them breaking every rule in the book," he says.
Fisher, a bear of a man with a belly that barely fits under his shirt, was a successful horse owner and trainer for two decades in his native South Africa, he says, before he was forced to leave after speaking out about corruption and racism in that nation's racing industry.
After moving to Miami and setting up his operation in 1997, Fisher won 14 races worth $116,000 around the country over the next 13 years. But he never won at Calder, which he found suspicious.
Fisher says Calder officials constantly tried to influence races. Some, like former racing secretary Bob Umphrey, secretly owned horses and wanted them to win, Fisher claims in court records. (Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former Calder official told New Times that Umphrey indeed owned horses and bet on races — in violation of track rules. Umphrey died in 2005. Marshall says that to his knowledge, no course official has ever improperly influenced a race.)
Fisher insists the formula was simple. With its private security force, Calder could rule off or ban anyone at any moment. Meanwhile, drug use was rampant among jockeys and employees on the backside. But officials looked the other way if employees followed orders, he says. Other track insiders echo that accusation.
"For big races with lots of money in them, the officials actually set up the race ahead of time," claims Gabriel Myatt, a former jockey and security guard at Calder. "They pick the horses, then they set up the odds and tell the jockeys: 'You are fourth, you are fifth,' and so on. If you're a jockey and you listen, you might make some extra money. If you don't listen to them, you don't get paid and you get blackballed."
Marshall says he's never heard an official complaint from Myatt, who worked at the track from April 2006 to May 2007. "We take these kinds of allegations very, very seriously," he says.
Fisher also claims that his complaints led to mysterious retaliation. In 2005, his horses at Calder began to go crazy. After finding them banging their heads against the wall or scratching their hooves raw, he suspected they were being drugged. He once found filly urine spread in his barn to make his male horses go wild, he says. Another time, he arrived early in the morning to find Majestic JCE — one of his most prized horses — with fractured legs after escaping from his stall the night before. He had to put the stallion down.
In December 2005, Fisher went to the FBI. He told agent Cynthia Levinson that Calder officials were fixing races, allowing drug use, and securing false social security numbers for undocumented immigrants to work at the track. (Miami-based FBI spokesman Mike Leverock declined to comment about Fisher's claims.)
Days later, Fisher met with Calder officials. He claims they demanded he drop his complaints. Fisher refused and was banned from the course. He sued several months later.
Calder conspired to defame Fisher because of his knowledge of foul play, corruption, and race fixing, he claimed in his suit. Track officials then "banished" him as "retaliation for speaking out." The case remains open.
Marshall declined to talk about Fisher's accusations. "He hasn't presented these complaints directly to me or come to me with these allegations," he says.
Fisher's close friend Rene Wagner, another South African trainer, has also battled track officials. When Fisher was ruled off, Wagner trained both of their horses. Like Fisher, she soon began to suspect that jockeys, horse owners, and Calder officials were conspiring to rig races.
In a complaint to the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering filed in April 2010, Wagner accused horse owner Allen Bruce Gottlieb of instructing jockey Carlos Camilo to zap horse Raisinaboveonly with a battery, or electric buzzer, hidden in his hand. The horse went wild and finished last. Wagner's complaint set off a bitter feud. Gottlieb sued her, calling Wagner and Fisher "scam artists." But Wagner won in court, claiming Gottlieb conspired with Calder officials to have her blacklisted. (Gottlieb declined to comment.) Wagner is now planning her own lawsuit against Calder.
The second suit comes from horse breeder Gina Silvestri. In 2006, she had more than a dozen stalls at Calder. When another owner died in November, she agreed to take on a horse named Greenwood Mystery. Silvestri's trouble began six months later, when someone else claimed ownership of the animal.
Sure enough, when Silvestri checked the horse's papers, she says she discovered the transfer had been signed in December — not by the dead owner, but by Calder racing secretary Michael Anifantis. When Silvestri and 15 witnesses turned up at a hearing to determine how a corpse could have given Silvestri a horse, the event was abruptly canceled. Steward Jeffrey Noe refused to take depositions. Three more hearings were scheduled and then canceled. In January 2008, Silvestri was banned from Calder for life. She sued the track in Broward County Court and sold all of her horses to pay nearly a half-million dollars in legal bills.
"Everybody is scared to death of Churchill Downs," she says. "But it's not fair that people are treated like this."
In court, the track's attorneys have sought to discredit Fisher, Wagner, and Silvestri. But some of the trio's allegations are supported by police reports and state regulators' investigations.
Fisher and Wagner's claim that Calder is awash in drugs is corroborated by repeated narcotics arrests at the racetrack. On July 12, 2009, for instance, a groom was arrested for selling cocaine and marijuana out of his room on the backside of Calder. Two months later, another horse handler was busted for selling and smoking crack. A year later, another dealer was caught with ten grams of pot and a digital scale. At least six arrests related to drugs have been made in the past five years.
Meanwhile, shady business abounds at the track. According to police reports, Calder employees accepted stolen checks and credit cards. One man lost $7,000 when his bank account was hacked by someone at the track.
There's at least one undeniable villain in the eyes of those who value clean contests at racetracks: the State of Florida. The Sunshine State not only has some of the most lax penalties in the nation, but state law also mandates testers to use outdated equipment that can't screen for a majority of modern cheating methods.
"Many drugs simply aren't detectable at all" in Florida, says Richard Sams, who used to run the University of Florida's Racing Laboratory, which tests all post-race samples in the state.
For horses and jockeys, the issue isn't just about fairness — it's life-or-death. Trainers who use powerful painkillers and stimulants to force horses to run through their injuries make accidents more likely. A recent investigation by the New York Times found that the rate of deadly breakdowns doubled when drug restrictions were loosened. Race horses die twice as often on the track in the United States as they do in England, where drugs aren't allowed.
"The only way to protect horses and jockeys is to get rid of the drugs," says Lyons, the equine-sports veterinarian. "The public is tired of seeing carnage on the racetrack."
There's a long history of politics undermining drug detection in Florida. Wayne Duer was in charge of drug-testing horses in the state from 1977 to 1986. In 1984, he and his fellow lab technicians discovered such rampant doping among quarter horses at Pompano Park that Florida banned quarter-horse racing for an entire year.
When racing restarted in 1986, Duer and his team resumed testing — at least until Bob Rosenberg, then the head of the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, sent his staff into the laboratory. "They took our samples — which constituted evidence that doping was going on again — and sent them to a lab in Colorado that couldn't even test for the drug that was being used," Duer says. He was fired, and it was back to business as usual at tracks around the state.
"It was all covered up," Duer says.
Politics again stymied efforts to clean up the sport in the 1990s. After the testing lab at UF began using newer techniques, the number of violators skyrocketed, as did fines and suspensions. Owners, trainers, and track officials, in turn, lobbied legislators to change state law to mandate the older, outdated methods. "It wasn't a budget issue," Sams says. "It was motivated by a desire to avoid longer detection periods."
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 horse racing, New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall called a hearing last month to discuss the "alarming level of corruption and exploitation" in the sport. "Horse racing... 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 horse racing, 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 horse racing. Marshall says, "Horse racing 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."
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